November 26th, 2020

Numbers game: COVID and budget


By Lethbridge Herald Opinion on November 20, 2020.

Curbing the spread of COVID-19 is in your hands.
1. Hand wash and sanitize
2. Hands off! Maintain physical distancing
3. Wear a handy mask
4. Avoid social gatherings. These have been the source of numerous outbreaks locally
These are simple messages. But we all have a personal responsibility to do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 for our own health and the wellness of our community. This has been essential since the start of the pandemic and continues with renewed importance as our active case numbers remain high.
The City’s recreation facilities have temporarily modified operations to limit public contact and minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19. We are following guidance on new public health measures announced by the Government of Alberta.
In order to protect our residents and staff, the City of Lethbridge is committed to continuing with all necessary measures to limit the transmission of COVID-19. Please follow our social media feeds and visit www.lethbridge.ca/covid19 for regular updates.
We continue to be mindful of the financial hardships that many of our residents, taxpayers and businesses are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This past Monday, city council voted unanimously to set a target for a zero-per-cent property tax rate increase and a zero-per-cent utility rate increase for 2021. Council also directed administration to implement KPMG-identified workforce reductions over a three-year period, using a combination of attrition and retirement, to achieve $5 million in savings on salaries and benefits.
These decisions have helped set a specific target for the 2021-22 Operating Budget deliberations that we will make as Finance Committee next week. These deliberations are open to the public to watch can be found online at agendas.lethbridge.ca or on Shaw TV Lethbridge.
City council originally approved the 2019-22 City of Lethbridge Operating Budget with an annual 1.82 per cent increase for the municipal portion of the property tax. The 1.82 per cent in 2019 was the lowest property tax rate increase in 20 years. However, city council approved a motion on May 19 to undertake a review of the 2021-22 Operating Budget to consider the impacts of COVID-19, the KPMG operational review and possible amendments to the Alberta provincial budget.
On June 29, city council passed a resolution that instructed the city manager to investigate and report back to council through the Finance Committee ways and means to enact a corporate-wide expense reduction, including the boards, commissions and committees, on the following two options:
1. Five per cent overall reduction in corporate expenses; and
2. 10 per cent overall reduction in corporate expenses
Now, Finance Committee will consider the proposed reduction options brought forward by the city manager to help us determine what amendments can be made to the 2021-2022 Operating Budget, keeping in mind that our target is to find enough savings to allow for a zero per cent property tax rate increase and a zero per cent utility rate increase for 2021.
It is very important to note that even if there is a zero per cent tax rate increase applied to the municipal portion of your tax bill, individual properties may see a tax change on their bills for other reasons, such as:
• A change in property assessment (the value of your home, business or multi-family complex);
• An increase to the Green Acres Foundation budget or to the Alberta School budget;
• New construction or demolition.
The City of Lethbridge must abide by the Municipal Government Act and use market value assessment. Property tax bills are specific to each property, so I would encourage you to call 311 to speak with the Assessment & Tax team to understand your assessment and the breakdown of your bill. You can also visit https://www.lethbridge.ca/taxes to learn more about property taxes.
One item that will undoubtedly have an impact during the Operating Budget review deliberations is the coming loss of our local EMS dispatch service. We are very concerned about this. Patient outcomes will suffer under a centralized dispatch model – and so will our budget pressure of around $3.7 million as a result of increased costs to us as a municipality.
• • •
This week is Métis Week and people across Canada will commemorate the history and culture of the Métis people and the legacy of Louis Riel. On Tuesday, I participated in a flag raising at City Hall as part of raising further awareness.
That day, the National Philanthropy Day flag was also raised to recognize philanthropy in southern Alberta. Congratulations to the winners at the sixth annual Inspiring Philanthropy Awards.
I would like to thank our Lethbridge Fire and EMS Department for their efforts at a residential fire earlier this week. Sadly, the family who lived there has been displaced. As a testament to Lethbridge’s spirit of community, there are local GoFundMe pages available to help them.
There are also many other families who will need assistance as we approach the Christmas season. Earlier this week, I lit the Christmas tree at City Hall in honour of the Christmas Hope campaign.
People are suffering economically, they are suffering from a mental health perspective and they are isolated. This is a way for people to demonstrate that they care. I applaud the wonderful organizations such as the Interfaith Food Bank, the Lethbridge Food Bank, the Salvation Army, Lethbridge Family Services and My City Care Shop of Wonders who have plans to aid 1,800 adults and 4,000 children in the community this Christmas season. To learn more about the Christmas Hope campaign visit http://christmashope.ca/.
The annual Angel Tree Christmas Campaign is also underway. Organizers have opted for a virtual component this year, where families can register online and donors can select a virtual angel. The campaign ensures that infants and children up to 18 years old have a gift bundle. More information is at http://www.lfsfamily.ca.
Chris Spearman is the mayor of Lethbridge. His column appears monthly.

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