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Council adjusting budget after pushback over tax increase

Jasper Municipal Council is exploring budget cuts and looking for revenue following criticism from the business community over the proposed 16 per cent tax increase.
Jasper Municipal Council has amended its proposed budget to reduce the tax burden. | File photo

Amendments made Tuesday include more revenue from paid parking, cutting a proposed position and a reduction in winter contracted services.

The proposed base budget originally contained $22.3 million in operational expenditures, supported by a $11.5 million net tax requirement, which was $1.3 million higher than in 2023.

Factors placing pressure on the budget include regular salary progressions and cost of positions approved in 2023, increased debt repayment costs for renovations at the wastewater treatment plant and the recreation facility, transit operations and increased energy costs.

James Jackson, president and CEO of Tourism Jasper, spoke to council last week on how Jasper’s mill rate was five-to-one with commercial properties generating 80 per cent of tax revenues, while residential properties pay the least compared to similar municipalities.

Jackson cited the Verum report – which detailed the cost of supporting visitors for Jasper, Banff and Canmore – that says if Jasper brought its residential taxes more in line with comparable municipalities, this could generate an extra $1.1 million each year.

“Knowing all of that, it is only reasonable to suggest that any double-digit increase to taxation should only be considered after all other revenue options have been explored fully, including residential tax rates,” Jackson said.

“A tax increase of 16 per cent is extraordinarily high. This level of spending is entirely unmaintainable, given that the commercial cap and town boundaries strictly limit any alternative sustainable revenue mechanism for the municipality.”

Jackson also voiced concerns about the municipal debt being incurred, specifically noting the new transit service, and added that the tax increase would be passed down from property owners to tenants.

“As much as this is about the largest commercial sector, large employers, this will affect the main street employers, the mom-and-pop operators the most,” he said.

“This isn’t us pushing big business. This is our concern for the visitor experience at a sidewalk level.”

Jackson requested that council cut unnecessary spending to reduce the commercial tax to under 10 per cent, bringing the rise in line with other provincial averages.

The Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce similarly lobbied council Tuesday to reduce the tax increase to seven or eight per cent.

“Jasper’s business community has been forced to shoulder an enormous and disproportionate amount of local tax and utility burden, and we’d like to have more of an open conversation and be part of the table when determining the mill rate moving forward,” said Chamber president Troy Mills.

Mills noted how local businesses had communicated “a very real concern” about the potential impact of a 16 per cent increase.

“We just don’t feel that the proposed budget recognizes the financial challenges that many businesses and residents are currently facing.”

George Andrew, owner of the Astoria Hotel, then presented to council on how tourism was one of the industries the most affected by COVID, and tourism was Jasper’s main business.

“It does not appear to me that this council is fully sensitive to that fact,” Andrew said.

“I think the reason is that there is no one in this council that is the owner or operator of a tourism business, so you did not feel the pain. There’s no one here, I think, that didn’t get a paycheque during COVID, but I had 37 staff that did not get a paycheque during COVID.”

Andrew noted he was still struggling to recover from the pandemic, and it was difficult to meet his expenses in the current economy.

“An increase of 13 per cent or more is crushing. I’ve watched my expenses rise at the Astoria to the point where it’s not really profitable anymore, and so I am confounded on what to do.”

He added that businesses needed to see “fiscal restraint” from council.

Following the presentations, council made numerous amendments to the budget.

Council saved $40,000 by reducing winter contracted services, which would have no service level impact, but there would be an increased risk of overages if there is a high snowfall in 2024 or an equipment breakdown.

“This would not be a straight-across reduction in service,” said CAO Bill Given.

“This would be a reduction in our capacity to bring in additional supports where the municipality couldn’t handle the demand on its own.”

Coun. Rico Damota criticized pausing maintenance of memorial benches, which will save $15,918, saying it was important to keep homage; however, the motion passed.

Council added $17,897 from an expected Alberta Education funding increase for Wildflowers Daycare and $14,357 from a change in expected revenue and staffing costs at Out of School Care (OOSC).

Coun. Wendy Hall opposed reducing contracted expenses in Community Development from $15,000 to $7,500 as she was worried about the impact on Indigenous reconciliation efforts.

Coun. Kathleen Waxer, who made the motion, said she only reduced it by half in the spirit of shrinking the budget but also maintaining momentum for reconciliation.

For paid parking, council increased the projected revenue from $1 million to $1.35 million, which will reduce the net tax requisition by $160,000.

No decisions have yet been made on how exactly this increase would be achieved, but options include a fee increase, expanding the paid parking zone, getting residents to pay for parking or making the program year-round.

Coun. Ralph Melnyk said a 35 per cent increase in paid parking revenue was “a little excessive” and opposed the amendment.

Coun. Rico Damota also opposed the motion since he didn’t have enough information about the potential impact, while Coun. Wendy Hall supported it because it was the only was the municipality gets money from visitors.

“The business sector has said the burden on them was too great, and this lessens the burden,” said Mayor Richard Ireland, who spoke in favour of the motion.

“It transfers it to the visitors, and we have long held that given that we spend 32 per cent of our expenditures on visitor-facing services and facilities and infrastructure, we should get more from the visitors.”

He warned, however, that a wildfire or other situation that interrupts visitation could cause the municipality to miss its revenue target for paid parking.

Council also approved the application of accumulated municipal over-levy from prior years for an additional $147,000, increased forecasted revenue for bulk water sales by $100,000 and dropped the proposed culture and recreation programmer position.

Finally, council reduced the funding for the UpLift! Mural Festival from $25,000 to $10,000, saving $15,000.

Council will continue discussing the budget either at its regular meeting on Dec. 19 or during a special meeting at an earlier date.

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