High River council takes stand against UCP cuts in provincial payments to municipalities

The Town of High River is taking a stand against the province for not paying all of its property taxes. 

Town will keep unpaid tax bill 'on the books' to protest provincial funding shortfall

High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass says residential taxpayers will be stuck paying for a shortfall in tax dollars from the province. (Dave Rae/CBC )

The Town of High River is taking a stand against the province for not paying all of its property taxes. 

High River council voted to keep a government funding shortfall on the books as a receivable, rather than writing it off, as a form of protest against funding changes.

"What people have to understand is, this is too easy when you're talking provincial politics to just look at a spreadsheet and be a backseat accountant and start taking this stuff off to fix that bottom-line number," High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"But we have to understand that money has to be recouped from somewhere, and where it's going to come from is your residential taxes."

The discrepancy stems from the UCP government's budget, which made changes to the "grant in place of property taxes" program, leaving the town with a nearly $30,000 funding shortfall for 2019.

"These guys have just got to be careful with how they're downloading all of these cuts onto municipalities and onto your residential and business commercial property taxpayers in your municipality," Snodgrass said. 

With the grants in place of taxes, the province pays out grant monies in lieu of paying property taxes, on any provincially owned buildings.

In 2019, the UCP government announced a reduction to those grant formulas, reducing the payouts from 100 per cent of taxes owed to 75 per cent in 2019, and to 50 per cent in 2020.

The funding change has a significant impact on the Town of High River, where the province owns 51 properties, thanks to buyouts after the flood of 2013.

Snodgrass said the town is taking a stand against the budget move. At its Feb. 10 council meeting, councillors voted 4-3 to keep the unpaid balance of $28,397 on the books, rather than writing it off.

"So it'll just sit on our books as a receivable and probably do it next year and it'll just be a bill that's owed," he said. "You know, I guess when the economy comes back this won't be written-off debt, it'll be a receivable on our books, and I guess we get to send them an invoice for it once the economy.… I don't know, that's what I would do with my own business."

A dead tree withers away at an abandoned home years after a devastating flood in High River. The town is going to receive fewer property tax dollars from the province under a new grant structure for provincially owned buildings. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

CBC reached out to the office of Kaycee Madu, the minister of Municipal Affairs, for comment.

"Alberta is currently in a fiscal crisis," wrote a Municipal Affairs spokesperson. "The MacKinnon report found that Alberta municipalities were being funded 20 per cent higher than the national average. In budget 2019, we announced that we are reducing the amount of property taxes the province pays to municipalities for provincially owned buildings. This will help bring spending more in line with the rest of Canada, and ensure Alberta taxpayers are protected."

The MacKinnon report examined Alberta's finances and came up with 26 recommendations to trim spending.

Snodgrass said the UCP's mandate to target what he called "low-hanging fruit" to reduce costs is shortsighted.

"You can get short-term wins really fast, right?" Snodgrass said. "But the long-term impacts, the human impacts to those of us that are working our butts off, as the hardworking Albertans that they are always claiming to be there for, you're costing us more money in doing this.… And now you're downloading this back onto you know, little old me and those of us in these municipalities that are going to have to make it up."

Snodgrass said the town is also working with the province to get flood buyout properties returned to the municipality and eventually sold back into private ownership. 

Province owns 51 properties

"That's the tricky thing about High River, there's a lot of properties, there's 51 in High River … when the province did the provincial floodway buyout relocation program."

Snodgrass said there are homes in the Beachwood area that have been removed and the land has been returned to a natural state, but there are others that are in more viable, berm-protected areas that the town would like to get back from the province.

"We're currently working on getting those homes back into the hands of the Town of High River, and then we will put them back into the hands of private ownership," he said.

"So there's a lot going on with this, but … saying 'we are now we're only going to pay 75 per cent of our property tax and next year it'll be 50 per cent.' There's not another business in High River, whether they're struggling or not, that has that luxury that can just say that."

The town continues to rebuild after the devastating flood of 2013, and to shore up its flood-mitigation efforts. Work is scheduled to begin this spring on a southwest dike and route, just south of 12th Avenue S.W.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.