The County of Lacombe faced several issues throughout 2019 that County Reeve Paula Law hopes will have more clarity in the coming year.
“I think the year went very good. We had a lot of challenges in terms of weather and things like that,” she said.
A long winter, compacted by a rainy summer were some of the issues the County had to face in terms of agricultural production. The County also welcomed two new governments at the provincial and federal level, which has had many affects on County dealings.
Lacombe County budget
Law is hoping for more clarity in 2020 from the provincial government in terms of changes.
The province runs on a non-calender budgeting cycle, while the County runs on a calender year. Since the province delayed releasing their budget until the fall, the changes within the budget were more difficult for the County to absorb.
Given the state of the Albertan economy and possible further cuts from the province, Law expect it will be difficult for the County to hold the line in terms of taxation and services.
”Businesses are hurting, people have lost jobs and it was a very difficult harvest year and a lot of producers were not able to get their crops off. We just wrote off $600,000 worth of taxes for bankrupt oil companies and we have a number of oil companies that haven’t paid their taxes. That all trickles down so we have some challenges going forward,” she said
Law said some of the changes made by the province could be considered downloading and it is important to remember that there is only one taxpayer.
Shallow Gas tax reduction
The County was asked by the Province of Alberta to reduce taxation on shallow gas wells in Lacombe County by 35 per cent — which Law called a “big ask”.
“Out of all of the rural municipalities, we were in the top 15 of communities affected the most by that. We expressed out concerns to the provincial government on that,” she said.
Law recognized that the petroleum sector is struggling in the province, but said shallow gas wells are only one piece of the puzzle and the request by the province has led to other businesses — both inside and outside the energy sector — asking why it was only these wells.
Law said that due to the school requisition, they we able to implement the reduction without cutting services.
“It wasn’t as big of challenge for us as it would be for other municipalities, but it still is a challenge. We don’t know where it is coming next year. We assume it will be the same way with no refund,” she said.
Law pointed to changes in the provincial police funding formula as a challenge going forward.
The province is taking a greater percentage of ticketing revenues and a line item will now appear on munipal taxes for policing costs in the form of a requisituion. The province has promised more boots on the ground and further adminstrative support to tackle the large issue of rural crime, but Law worries that taxpayers will expect more than what is possible given they will know directly what they are paying for policing.
“My biggest fear is that with people seeing it on their property tax bill, there will be more of an expectation of where if someone calls the RCMP, they will expect people to be out there,” she said.
“In all reality, even with added boots on the ground, they can’t be all places at all times. There is a lot of square footage and a lot of things going on.”
Intermunicipal Collaborative Framework (ICF)
Municipalities were mandated by the Government of Alberta to establish an ICF with each of their neighbouring communities.
For the City of Lacombe, the process was somewhat simple given they are surrounded by Lacombe County; for the County, administration and council was eminently busy given they neighbour 15 different communities.
The County has completed their ICFs with Alix, Clive, Bentley and Eckville and are currently working with the City of Lacombe, Ponoka County, Sylvan Lake Summer Villages, the Town of Blackfalds and others to complete the lengthy process.
”We have had very good working relationships with all of the other councils and administration. We have had a lot of good working back and forth and we have a lot of good agreements in place. A lot of this is just tweaking, updating and reminding ourselves what we do back and forth,” Law said.
Law credits the County for taking on several initiatives including taking on their own school resource officer.
“He is out and about at the schools and I am hearing really good things about that,” she said.
The reeve was also pleased that the County was selected to continue on with Clean Farm’s Grain Bag Recycling program.
“They receive grants and we were one of the groups chosen by them to continue with it,” she said.
The County has also been working with the community of Mirror to spur economic development.
“We have a development incentive grant program. No one was really taking it up, but we did some more advertising and promoting of it. We have had two businesses take it on since then,” she said.
Law added she was also pleased to attend the opening of Kuhnen Park.
Relationship with Blackfalds, Lacombe
Law pointed to great working relationships with the County’s two larger municipalities.
“We have a lot of things we are working back and forth on,” she said.
Law pointed to the collaboration efforts on the North Red Deer Regional Wastewater Services Commission as one of the highlights of collaboration between the communities, as well as a future services line to the Wildrose Industrial Park, underneath the QEII Highway.
“The process has started and we work together on a lot of different initiatives,” she said.
Law said it will be important for all three communities to recognize that many community groups are currently losing funding and will be looking for further support from municipalities.
“We will all face requests for increased funding and support,” she said.
Law said the economy will be a big issue for Lacombe County in 2020.
“I think it will be everything that goes with that. If the economy is good, it is so much easier to do things,” she said.
The County will take advantage of some good pricing for some of their projects and expects Westside Servicing to be one of the projects that takes advantage of that.
The County will also work to finish their ICFs by the deadline of April 1, which has been and will be considerable work for County administration.
“We have a great staff and we have a great working relationship between council and administration,” Law said. “They work very hard getting the information we need. If we need more, they go out and get all the information so we can make the best decision we can.
“It is a really good back and forth and I believe the entire administration and council wear the County on their sleeves.”
Law will also continue to lobby County interests to the provincial government through the Rural Municipalities Association (RMA).
“We have our conferences twice per year and we have different zone meetings to see where everyone is at. There is a lot of same challenges and we try to find out what is the best way to use the RMA lobby on our behalf,” she said.
Law said they will also lobby County MLAs and MP Blaine Calkins, all of whom the County has good relationships with, according to Law.
“We are all working for the same goal. We may not agree on a decision but we make decisions and they make decisions. It is a good faith relationship,” she said.