The numbers can be a whirling storm — dollars on the wind. For municipal councils across the Lakeland, budget deliberations are taking over the discussion tables. With the advantage of being pretty good at gathering regional news, the Lakeland This Week newsrooms in each of our communities have been comparing notes on some of the deliberations.
And, like the classic Dickens' opening line in A Tale of Two Cities, we're finding that despite the relatively close proximity of communities within the region, it is the best of times, and the worst of times, when we look at the budget tales of two... or three or four… cities… or communities in the Lakeland.
The Town of St. Paul council is battling a deficit on an already strained $17-million budget that is almost impossible to make up without significant service cuts. Last week, councillors were debating how to make up some of the shortfall by offering options that ranged from sweeping changes like the deletion of the town's peace officer program to nickel-and-dime savings like reducing paper costs — $2 at a time — with digital billing. Town of St. Paul councillors are also planning to nix some upcoming conferences that add to their bottom-line expenses. At the same time, councillors sitting around the table 140 kilometres away in Lac La Biche County were planning to give themselves a boost in their mileage rates to get to those same conferences — and are even considering an increase in their conference meal allowances... since most of the conferences are held at swanky hotels. That was just one part of the discussions as Lac La Biche County councillors, representing 8,300 residents, are currently going through their $78-million budget plans.
MD of Bonnyville councillors also have big-dollar budget planning to do. Their $87-million budget comes from a massive $7.9-billion — with a b — property assessment within its boundaries.
It is those assessments — at least the ones including industrial ratepayers — that are powering the fortunate municipalities in the region.
Of that almost $8 billion in assessment in the MD, 75 per cent comes from a non-residential or farmland tax base. In Lac La Biche County, its $4.8-billion assessment includes only $1.5-billion in residential and farmland. The rest is thanks to industrial and commercial operations in the rural areas.
The County of St. Paul also has vast areas for development, but instead has a higher tax rate for farmland, with residential and farmland values making up half of the municipality's $1.75-billion in property assessment.
The numbers swirl. And as council members, administrators, media — and hopefully the taxpaying residents — look over the budgets and financial statements of their Lakeland municipalities, it's hard not to notice the vast differences in available funds.
But it's also easy to see where those funds come from. If it weren't for the industrial, commercial (and in St. Paul County's case, farmland) tax contributions, most municipalities in the Lakeland would not be able to operate as they have been.
And that should be a frightening reality for everyone in the Lakeland, especially those in council seats.
They say the top three business and real estate pillars are location, location, location. Well, the same is painfully true when it comes to municipal sustainability. We're seeing it in the budget deliberations across the Lakeland. And as the gaps in financial assurance between neighbouring communities grow, so will the frustrations.
Dickens' novel takes place in the lead-up to the French Revolution, a time when those who 'had-not' rose up against those who 'had'. Right now, many of our neighbours are living and working in communities facing those worst of times. Instead of continuing to watch the growing frustrations, waiting for them to come with cap in hand, saying another of Dickens' famous lines: "Please sir, I want some more..." perhaps it’s time to re-visit discussions on sharing some of the benefits of living in a close-knit region.
As these diverse budget events are showing us, it might not be a tale about two cities, but two fortunes. And if there is going to be any chance at a happy ending as this story continues — and continuing with the Dickens’ theme — the next chapters should include a very non-Scrooge-like re-visit to the past ideas of regional governments and sharing resources in order to help the present hardships, before the future of the whole region is jeopardized.