The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) is asking the Alberta government to reconsider changes to education taxes that will see an increase of almost 18 per cent from last year shouldered on Wood Buffalo residents and businesses.
On behalf of the municipal council, Mayor Melissa Blake sent a letter of protest to Alberta’s Minister of Education, Jeff Johnson, detailing the council’s objection to the hike in taxes, which will hit the residential category hardest with average single family homeowners paying nearly $750 more in property education tax from rates in 2012 – an average increase of 87 per cent.
The jump in tax requisition for Wood Buffalo is the result of the province’s decision to remove the cap on market-based assessment, which was designed to buffer communities where property values are rapidly increasing. That decision was made in 2013 with a plan to phase it in over two years.
“It was dropped on us last year without any forewarning, to be quite honest with you. Last year we saw a very significant increase in requisition from the province. They announced it in their budget last year and basically sent out the bill the next day,” Brian Moore, director of tax assessment for RMWB, said in an interview last week.
Moore said residents in the booming oilsands municipality will now pay the highest education taxes in the province with no increase in education spending in the region.
According to Blake, the Wood Buffalo region has been struggling with a lack of education and infrastructure dollars for years, unable to keep up with a burgeoning population quickly rising from the flood of employment opportunities with oilsands and servicing companies.
“When we correlate what this region contributes in terms of their new rates on the education per proportion that we send to the province, we do not see that returning in the same proportion back to the region…even though our education systems certainly struggle with their budgets; especially being in the location that we are and having increasing student population. It’s a bit of double whammy,” she said.
According to Moore, the province is now collecting more revenue than ever from RMWB and putting it towards education spending in major cities like Calgary and Edmonton.
“Taking this revenue out of this region and actually investing it in municipalities south of here does not make sense, particularly when the entire provincial economy depends upon the success of this municipality,” he said.
“Fort McMurray is already an expensive place to live, so when you start adding in additional housing costs like this without any forewarning to the taxpayers, it makes the ownership of housing much more difficult,” Moore said.
Greg Weadick, acting minister of Municipal Affairs – the department in charge of provincial tax collection – told The Journal the cap removal has brought all Alberta properties to a fair market value so that “nobody was subsidizing someone else.”
Wood Buffalo is one of four municipalities in Alberta hit hardest by the cap removal because of higher than average home values, along with Chestermere, Banff and Waterton.
Weadick said Wood Buffalo has the highest education costs in the province, around 30 per cent higher than in Edmonton and Calgary, and will now be paying an equal market share into the provincial education budget.
Wood Buffalo lashes out
The RMWB protest letter, sent on Apr. 11, was the result of a municipal council meeting resolution to protest the tax hike in early April, which passed unanimously.
The letter accuses the provincial government of “avoiding serious discussions” with local school boards about the need for new schools to meet a growing demand on the current educational services.
The letter requests the Alberta government extend the two-year phase-in of the tax cap removal. It also requests a meeting with Johnson as well as the regional MLAs Don Scott and Mike Allen to hear the municipality’s concerns.
Blake said the council received an almost immediate response from the education minister agreeing to a meeting, but she’s not getting her hopes up.
“The willingness to meet doesn’t necessarily mean things are going to change in the situation, it’s just that if we are able to advocate for our region then we are certainly pleased to be able to do that.”
Weadick said his department, along with the department of Education, is fully intending to meet with the RMWB council to discuss their concerns.
“We don’t want to see them adversely affected. We want to makes sure the taxation is fair so that anyone with a (high) home value does also pay a fair share compared to anyone else,” he said.