First draft budget includes four per cent tax rate increase

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

The first draft budget for 2021 was presented to council including a four per cent tax increase resulting from several cost saving measures.

Compared to budget 2020, the draft budget for 2021 has an increase of just over half a million dollars.

The yearly cost for taxes owing on an average home assessed at $365,000, would be about $2057, which is actually only $17 higher than the rates of 2019, stated Carla Fox, corporate services director, during the first budget discussion with council on Nov. 20. She added that assessment values may face a deflationary decrease due to the current economic situation, however that would come back to council in early 2021.

“The budget that we’re going to discuss tonight and tomorrow includes substantial reductions that are not expected to result in impactful decreases and service levels. Over $400,000 has been reduced in salaries and wages, $250,000 to $300,000 of this will be permanent,” said CAO Emily Olsen on Nov. 20.

In total, the draft budget includes a 14.9 per cent increase in the operating budget to manage fixed increases and additional operating requirements, however operational reductions of 10.9 per cent or roughly $1.4M provides a tax increase of only four per cent.

Fixed increases like union wages, insurance rates, and revenue losses added up to just over $1M, while additional operating requirements such as contracting increases, development plan additions, and non‐union wage increases added up to just over $900,000.

The Preliminary Budget Discussion Report from September confirmed that administration would present a 2021 budget including a tax rate maximum of four per cent for council’s initial look.

Operational reductions include debt reductions, wage reductions, contract reductions, and a franchise fee increase.

“The pressures to try and bring the tax rate in line with what people are willing to pay is going to be an exercise that is going to need public engagement and further discussions with council on areas of service we are willing to let go,” Fox said.

She noted that administration has made real strides in working with council over the last year and recently in setting goals and directions to find further efficiencies.

Each department within the Town’s administration presented their operating budget to council on Nov. 20, as well as highlights of their capital budgets.

Through these presentations, Council learned that departments would continue to offer similar levels of service as a result of the proposed changes.

Each department faced common changes including inflation on goods and services, a seven per cent increase on insurance premiums, union negotiated wage increases, an additional CAO supported non-union wage increase consistent with the union increases, as well as COVID-19 pandemic costs.

“Over $1M was reduced from the budget in 2021 to offset COVID-19 impacts through lost revenue and increased expenses,” Olsen stated.

After the capital and operating budget presentations, council had a chance to make directions and discuss any changes for the next draft budget.

Olsen explained that Municipal Operating Support Transfer (MOST) provided the Town with roughly $1.5M of provincial funds meant to support communities in their COVID-19 response. This funding has not been attributed to anything within the budget and council can make decisions on how to utilize the funds.

“If council makes a motion to receive that money into grant funding for 2020, it will offset the lost revenue that we lost over [the pandemic] and it will put the town in a position where we have surplus dollars in our operating budget,” Fox explained. 

Administration tracked funds and losses caused by the pandemic, and still anticipate further losses to be offset by this funding.

“There’s going to be approximately $700,000 left to be placed into a reserve of council’s choosing if that’s what they would like to do,” Fox said. Funds could be used for programs such as a tax penalty forgiveness program or emergency operations reserve for future pandemic impacts, she added.

A brief report on MOST funding will be presented at Dec. 8 standing committee meeting.

Within the operating budget, Council directed that the line item in the 2021, 2022, and 2023 budgets for the Hinton disc golf association reflect an additional $8,000 per year to be funded through taxation.

Coun. Dewly Nelson and Coun. Albert Ostashek both stated they were surprised by the financial ask of the disc golf association, but ultimately believe in the importance of supporting the disc golf association.

“I think the right decision is to ensure long term sustainability. Of that $8,000, $5,000 goes into reserves for future maintenance and enhancements,” Nelson said.

Ostashek added that if this item is important enough to council, then support should be made available through tax dollars and the input of the community rather than at the expense of another organization.

Council also directed the civic agencies’ operating plan be amended to reflect an increase of $30,800 for the Chamber of Commerce for 2021.

“I don’t ever want to be in a place where we don’t have tourism support at our visitor information centre, that is where people have come to expect to find resources that support our businesses and community and I wouldn’t want to be on the lookout for a new tenant for that building or a new tourism provider,” Nelson said.

Council then removed the third, currently vacant Community Peace Officer (CPO) position, from the 2021 budget.

Nelson stated that after speaking with citizens, he did not find a noticeable decrease in services and with the current state of finances and tax increase he was inclined not to add that third position.

As an advocate for the third position, Coun. Trevor Haas disagreed, stating that with only two officers there would be a dip in service levels as they face burnout or fall behind.

“Administration brought back a budget that included the third position and still maintained that [four per cent],” Haas said.

Protective services manager, Todd Martens, stated that it is challenging for two officers to cover all duties.

Council allotted $29,000 to the hanging basket program and maintenance thereof. This would be exclusively funded by new grant monies in the 2021 budget.

“Because it is exclusively funded by grants, if the grants are not met then the project will go to 2022,” stated Mayor Marcel Michaels.

Laura Howarth, director of community services, explained that the flowers are ordered in January each year, which may be impacted by when the budget is approved. While there are no current grants available right now, administration will do some deeper digging, she added.

While the budget showed that this program would return in 2022 and 2023, Coun. JoAnn Race believed it was important to keep this program running in 2020.

Olsen explained this program was cut in the draft budget 2021 to offset COVID-19 losses.

Council also directed that the $100,000 in transfers from reserves along with associated expenditures be removed from the council operating plan and that the $100,000 be maintained in reserves.

All the changes requested by council decreased the operating budget by roughly $40,000, which will be presented in the second draft budget for 2021.

Changes to the capital budget however, did not result in financial changes but several projects await reports before moving ahead.

Within the capital budget, Council requested that any Beaver Boardwalk upgrades come to a future standing committee meeting for discussion prior to beginning work.

Coun. Ryan Maguhn explained that this is an opportunity to transition from council lead discussion on the Beaver Boardwalk to getting the community involved. Ostashek felt this decision was premature and would duplicate work of the Beaver Boardwalk Committee.

The work on the boardwalk is funded by a grant that requires the funds to be spent by the end of 2021, and if a report is requested back to council for discussion, the report and work would be impacted, clarified Olsen.

Nelson agreed that public involvement is important when moving forward with this project.

The Maxwell Lake bridge rehabilitation will also come to council for a decision. Olsen stated that work permits through Alberta’s Environment and Parks (AEP) had not yet been submitted but the intention is to work with AEP regarding those.

Several requests for decisions were made by council regarding the decommissioning of Scout Hall, the greenhouse training building capital amounts for 2022 and 2023, the replaced 400 commercial bins over two years project, and the pool locker replacement.

Fox noted that the reports requested would not hold up the budget process.

“The current numbers in the budget will be kept how they are, those projects identified specifically by motion of council will not move forward without that report and further direction from council,” Fox said.

The draft budget also includes a four per cent utility rate increase for water services, wastewater services, and waste services, as discussed during an earlier meeting of council in November about the water treatment plant agreement with West Fraser. 

Nelson stated during the meeting on Nov. 21, that the week leading up to budget discussion had been challenging with limited time to review the budget documents, and that council may bring up further directions in the coming weeks after conversations with the public and additional time to look through the budget.

No social gatherings allowed, says Kenney

Masha Scheele

Enhanced public health measures have been implemented across Alberta as a result of the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases.

Measures were announced on Nov. 24 by Premiere Jason Kenney, who stated that the mandatory restrictions will be in place for three weeks at which point they will be reviewed.

“I certainly did not go into public service, nor did anyone sitting around our cabinet table, in order to impose restrictions on how people live their lives. But we believe these are the minimum restrictions needed right now to safeguard our healthcare system, while avoiding widespread damage to people’s livelihoods,” Kenney stated.

He noted that social gatherings are the key reason why COVID-19 continues to spread.

Indoor close contacts must be limited to people in the same household, and people who live alone can have up to the same two non-household contacts for the duration of the restriction.

Mandatory restriction across Alberta include no indoor social gatherings in any setting, a maximum of 10 people at outdoor gatherings as well as weddings and funeral services, no receptions permitted, no festivals or events, at-home learning for grades 7-12 between Nov. 30 and Jan. 11, at-home learning for grades K-6 between Dec. 18 and Jan. 11, and working from home where possible.

Diploma exams are optional for the rest of the school year and students and families can choose to write an exam or receive an exemption for the January, April, June and August 2021 exams.

“Rising cases in our workplaces and homes driven disproportionately by social gatherings means that we are seeing rising cases in schools as well. There is limited transmission within the schools but more community transmission affecting the schools and their ability to operate,” Kenney said.

While the province only made masks mandatory in the Calgary and Edmonton zones, Hinton has its own mandatory mask bylaw for all public spaces for those aged five and up.

Hinton is currently included in the enhanced area where places of worship are only allowed at ⅓ of normal attendance, as well as restricted access to some businesses and services starting Nov. 27.

Businesses and services closed include banquet halls, conference centres, trade shows, auditoria and concert venues, non-approved or licensed markets, community centres, children’s play places or indoor playgrounds, and all levels of sport.

Restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges are allowed to remain open until 11 pm with a maximum of six people from the same immediate household at a table, only allowing people who live alone to meet with two non-household contacts, and not allowing other services like billiards, games, or darts.

Most retail businesses, such as grocery stores and clothing stores, may remain open with capacity limited to 25 per cent of their Alberta Fire Code occupancy. Several entertainment services have the same restrictions, including movie theatres, museums, and libraries.

Businesses normally open by appointment only will not be allowed to offer walk in services.

Violating the public health order may come at a cost of a $1,000 fine, and individuals can be prosecuted for up to $100,000 for a first offense.

“We will enforce these rules against social gatherings and those who break these rules will be subject to fines,” Kenney said.

He added that the province will look for ways to allow peace officers to fine those breaking the rules.

Measures are put in place now in order for the province to review before Christmas, and measures can be adjusted in the meantime based on the results, Kenney said.

“Just 11 days ago, I told Albertans that we were at a dangerous juncture. We resisted calls for a lockdown of our society because of the profound damage it would cause especially for the poor and vulnerable who are most affected by policies like that,” Kenney noted.

Instead, previous targeted measures focused on places where the data clearly showed COVID-19 was spreading, but the virus continues to spread and is picking up speed.

The virus continues to set records for daily confirmed cases and as of Nov. 24 there have been 492 deaths related to COVID-19 in Alberta.

Continuing care outbreaks have quadrupled since Oct. 1, putting the most vulnerable at risk.

Kenney stated that Alberta has 8,400 acute care beds, which the province is working to increase.

As of Nov. 24, 348 Albertans were hospitalized due to COVID-19 and 66 were in intensive care.

Hinton has ten confirmed active cases of COVID-19 as of Nov. 24, and Yellowhead County has 14.

Mandatory masks in Hinton’s public spaces

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

A temporary mandatory mask and face coverings bylaw went into effect on Saturday, Nov. 21, for all indoor public spaces within the Town of Hinton, such as stores, businesses, and government buildings.

This bylaw was passed by council during a special meeting of council on Nov. 20. 

Council made an amendment to the bylaw to exempt kids aged five and under from wearing masks.

Coun. Ryan Maguhn suggested raising that age of exemption to be in line with the rules within Alberta’s education system, where kids below grade four are exempt.

“I think one of the reasons in schools that the age is set at nine, is that there needs to be some assurance that the child is old enough to handle taking on and off their masks independently. Whereas, outside of school, the child is generally going to be with their cohort group and they will have a cohort or family member who can help them with their mask,” said Coun. Albert Ostashek.

He stated two wasn’t unreasonable considering that they would likely be with a parent or guardian who can help them put on their masks in public spaces.

Mayor Marcel Michaels noted that kids aged four and up at St. Gregory Catholic School have been wearing masks without any issues, providing a successful trial from within the community.

Coun. Dewly Nelson stated that council will have regular opportunities to amend this bylaw as they learn what is working and what is not.

The bylaw will be reviewed every first and third Tuesday of each month by council and currently will only be enacted by the CAO when there are ten or more confirmed active cases of COVID-19.

Other exemptions to the bylaw include people who are unable to remove a mask without assistance, anyone eating or drinking in a designated area or ceremony, during exercise, for any medical reason, or someone who is hearing impaired, among others. It also doesn’t apply to schools, hospitals, childcare, or areas accessed by public place employees.

Todd Martens, protective services manager of Hinton, stated that peace officers will ask individuals about their medical condition if they refuse to wear a mask for that reason, which they may or may not respond to. Officers have the authority to deal with individuals who refuse in several ways, but it won’t be an automatic ticket, he added.

“We’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to the person that said they have that medical condition. If you do have a medical condition, we encourage all people to ask their doctor for a note and to quickly show that to our peace officers. Some doctors are gladly willing to write that for people who truly have a medical condition, for others it will be case by case,” Martens said.

Coun. Trevor Haas added that most doctor’s notes won’t state what the person’s condition is, which is not something the individual is required to disclose.

Failure to wear a face covering where required comes with a minimum penalty of $100 and interference with a person in the exercise or performance of the person’s powers pursuant to this bylaw will come with a minimum penalty of $250.

Maguhn  pointed out a few concerns he came across while speaking with citizens about the bylaw, one being the misconception of bylaws not getting repealed.

He explained that repealing a bylaw is a normal order of business for a municipality and that the Town does, can, and will repeal any bylaw as necessary.

Another concern surrounded the legalities of a mandatory mask bylaw.

The Town also referenced approved bylaws from other municipalities and how they fit within all necessary legal frameworks, he stated.

“We also, as a municipality, consulted our own legal representation to make sure that everything fits within the accordance of all legal structures, provincial, federal, municipal,” Maguhn said.