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Lac La Biche County officials defend top three spending report

Necessary expenditures, say Lac La Biche County officials in response to a recent report released by the Canadian Taxpayers Association that puts the municipality's recent spending habbits in the top three of "the worst ..

LAC LA BICHE - Necessary expenditures, say Lac La Biche County officials in response to a recent report released by the Canadian Taxpayers Association that calls the municipality one of "the worst . . . biggest spenders"  of Alberta municipalities.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation released the report on June 16, claiming it analyzed the annual per person spending of Alberta municipal governments, finding that "municipal governments in Alberta are some of the biggest spenders in Canada." 

According to the CTF report, Lac La Biche County has the second-highest annual per-capita spending of any medium-sized municipality in the province with populations between 5,000 and 30,000. The report says that just over six thousand dollars was spent for each of the 8,650 permanent residents over a year of spending. Yellowhead County, with a population of 11,000 was second on the list with approximately $6,200 per person spent by that municipality, and the Municipal District of Greenview around Valleyview in northwestern Alberta — with population of 5,600 was reported to have expensed $14,911 per person annually.

CTFs Alberta director Franco Terrrazzano says the report "allows Albertans to see which municipalities are the worst."

The same report shows that one of the province's least populated municipalities, the Municipal District of Ranchland in southwestern Alberta, with  just 92 people, had a per capita annual spend of $23,000.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, with 71,000 residents was reported by the CTF study to have spent $5,246 per person annually. Wood Buffalo was the second highest spending municipality in the category of communities with more than 30,000 people. The city of Medicine Hat, with 63,000 people recorded an annual, per person expense of $6,200.

Report lacks context, say county officials

The POST had to research the population figures for the story, as CTF report doesn't include the populations of the communities on its list or the total of annual spending. And according to Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi, a lot of other things were left out of the report by the taxpayers federation - including any significant research of their own.

"They just went out and printed stuff without any context," said Moghrabi. "When you make a statement like that, you need to dig deeper."

With 16,000 square-kilometres of area, including 1,600 kilometres of local roads to maintain with two significant hamlets and 40 rural subdivisions, the mayor says Lac La Biche County is more than just two rows of numbers on a spreadsheet. "Those numbers — spending and population — they don't really tell the story. If they (CTF) did their homework, they would get an F."

Using the economic downturn on both sides of the equation, municipal officials say they have seen a more competitive bidding market over the last several years on large projects, bringing down overall costs. With the lower costs, says Lac La Biche County's communications manager Jihad Moghrabi, large projects have been created to increase the quality of life for residents and maintain and increase desired service levels. 

"We've done a lot of projects during the economic downturn, and we've got some really good deals — a better bang for the buck for ratepayers," he said.

Since 2014, Lac La Biche senior administrators say approximately $200 million has been spent on capital projects within the municipality. For the province's second oldest community with aging infrastructure, the mayor says all of that expenditure is necessary.

"Our residents have asked for these levels of service, a quality of life, and they have given us their mandate," said the mayor, showing clear frustration at the one-dimensional report made by people he said don't have any idea about the communities they are talking about.  "They sit up there in their ivory towers, they don't know."

Sports field construction, medical additions at the Cadzow hospital, replacing as much as 16 kilometres of underground cast-iron utility pipes, taking on programming and capital projects being off-loaded by provincial agencies,  road construction, upgrades to emergency services  and social programming — just  few of the more recent upgrades to service levels in the community that are used by residents, visitors and industries, said the mayor, adding that any expenditures are carefully examined for affordability and efficiency. "Are there ways to be more efficient? Absolutely, that's something we discuss every day."

Financial accountability

When asked if the municipality would respond directly to the authors of the report, interim CAO Ken Van Buul said no.

"We respond to our residents. We don't answer to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Our responsibility is to our residents ... We answer to them."

The mayor said provincial or federal officials have not commented on the spending habits of the municipality. Calling the report's findings a "snapshot" with no background, he said local taxpayers  — both residential and industrial — are benefiting from relatively low tax payments and a growing quality of life.

It is those people — the taxpayers — that the report's authors say are being hurt by increased municipal spending.

"The more money Alberta councillors spend, the less money that families and businesses have to weather this economic storm. That’s why every municipal council must cut all the fat and lower property taxes," says Terrazzano.

Across the Lakeland

The CTF report highlights the spending per capita of 74 mid-size Alberta communities including municipalities in the Lakeland area. The MD of Bonnyville came in as the sixth highest spender at $5,290 per person. The County of St. Paul was in 14th spot, spending $4,198 per person. Athabasca County spent $3,662 per resident, earning a spot at 22 on the list. The city of Cold Lake averaged $3,322 per person, earning them a position at 28. The Town of Bonnyville was in spot 30 with an annual spend of $3,303 per person and the Town of St. Paul's annual spend put them into 41st place — making it the only Lakeland municipality not in the top half of the list — with an annual spend of $2,873 per person. The City of Edmonton, by comparison, spent $3,116 per person in a population of around a million people.

The CTF spending report is released each year in conjunction with the arrival of municipal tax notices. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation is a not-for profit society that calls itself a watchdog for lower taxes, waste and accountable government. 

Rob McKinley

About the Author: Rob McKinley

Rob has been in the media, marketing and promotion business for 30 years, working in the public sector, as well as media outlets in major metropolitan markets, smaller rural communities and Indigenous-focused settings.
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