Council hikes taxes despite objection

Chris Clegg
South Peace News

Rising bills are making it difficult for families to live in High Prairie, a woman told town council at its meeting May 10.
“Struggling” is the word Sheilah Luniza used to describe the plight of many families.
“For so many of our neighbours and friends,” she said.
“Our town is a ghost town in the making,” she said she heard from one resident.
“Groceries are high. It’s the most expensive place I’ve lived in.”
Council raised utility rates in January in an effort to put aside money into capital reserves. Council estimates it needs $19 million in the next five years to catch up on infrastructure needs. They also planned a four per cent tax increase despite estimating a $1.187 million surplus from 2021 operations. Coupled with rising home utility costs and gasoline prices, the burden is causing hardship among some residents.
Luniza said now was the time for restraint when bills are so “ridiculous”.
“We’ve heard it loud and clear from some public,” said Mayor Brian Panasiuk.
“We’re really trying to keep costs down.”
However, he explained, like homeowners, inflation was also affecting the town and its ability to keep the taps flowing and the sewer lines operating.
“Inflation is hitting us,” said Panasiuk.
“We don’t want to raise taxes but council is trying to keep the town sustainable.”
Councillor Judy Stenhouse had pity for Luniza saying she hears similar stories each day. She questioned council’s decision to put aside $40,000 each year to give to charities.
“I hear what you say but does the rest of council?” she asked.
“We need a wakeup call,” she added, after asking how council can attract people when costs are so high.
“Council needs to be reminded who they work for,” said Stenhouse.
Councillor Donna Deynaka alluded to cuts in grants to municipalities like High Prairie and how it affected council’s bottom line.
“It’s [raising taxes] not something we relish doing,” she said.
Councillor Sacha Martens called council’s actions “rhetoric”.
“When it come to decision making, we don’t do the right thing,” she said.
As for the grants Stenhouse alluded to, Martens said charity begins at home and people should decide which charities to support rather than have council collect money and decide.
Luniza added before leaving her views were not only hers.
“I wish more families could come here and talk.”
Martens responded 80 per cent of the town’s residents were not represented during council decision making.
Another resident, Barry Sharkawi, supported Luniza.
“Why can’t [council] help the people pay their utilities?” he asked, suggesting help come from the $1.187 million operating surplus.
Another resident since 1985, Wayne Erasmus also spoke.
“You’re driving people out of town,” he said. “Guys, you have to do better. I don’t even shop here because of the prices.
“I think you guys should start listening to the voters” he added. “I think you better go home and look at what you’re doing.”

Council passes tax increase

Later in the meeting, council approved a 2022 tax increase, but not quite the four per cent proposed. Chief financial officer Rita Maure told council there was an increase in overall assessment from 2020. However, some of the increase was due to increased property values, and not “real” growth, or new assessment. Council decided to exclude the “real” assessment numbers dropping the tax increase to about 3.6 per cent.
Maure reminded council the $9,755,063 operating budget was based on a proposed four percent increase and further reminded council of the need to increase capital reserves as planned.
Councillor James Waikle was first to suggest council keep the course as planned. He was quickly supported by Councillor John Dunn and Councillor Therese Yacyshyn.
“I think we really need to stick with our plan,” said Yacyshyn.
Deynaka was opposed to the four per cent hike but recognized grocery and gasoline prices were out of council’s control.
“It’s a tough decision when you’ve got people coming in bemoaning the taxes and the prices,” she said.
“It’s really tough to find the balance when you’ve got people coming in here. . .I don’t know what to do here.”
Even Stenhouse relented on the four per cent.
“Stick with the four per cent. We’ve warned the people.”
Maertens suggested doing both. She suggested increasing non-residential [business] tax and keeping residential tax the same.
“They [business] can stomach it a bit better,” she said.
Dunn disagreed.
“Are we going to make them feel the burden because residential is feeling the pinch?” he asked.
“They can’t afford to pay much more either,” said Panasiuk, adding some businesses are doing very well.
Council set the residential mill rate at 10.24723 mills and the non-residential rate at 15.66431 mills based on the budget, of which $3,957,998 is raised through local taxes.
Tax penalties also return to pre-COVID levels. A penalty of 14 per cent applies to all unpaid portions of the tax bill after June 30.
Some tax bills may decrease. Overall tax bills are determined not only by the mill rate but on property assessment which may increase or decrease from one year to the next

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