Residents in Vulcan County, a swath of the Prairies in south central Alberta, in early 2020 can expect a letter from their local government explaining why their taxes are going up.
The municipal district is home to roughly 4,000 people and covers 5,433 square kilometres. And like the rest of Alberta’s rural areas, towns and villages, the district must chip in for policing costs starting in April as part of the province’s plan to add hundreds of RCMP officers to rural areas while passing along the costs to local governments.
The provincial government’s decision to bill its municipal counterparts threatens Vulcan County’s budget, while local politicians across Alberta say they do not know what law enforcement services they will receive in exchange for the policing payment.
Vulcan County is not alone. Across Alberta, local politicians are rewriting budgets, needing to come up with a collective $15.4-million in the coming fiscal year. This tab, which accounts for subsidies and will climb over the next three years, comes as energy firms are skipping out on millions of dollars in property taxes owed to rural districts and as the provincial government cuts municipal grants.
“Whether it is [the province] raising taxes or us, we’re all asking the same people for extra money,” said Jason Schneider, Vulcan County’s reeve. “Unfortunately, in this situation, we’ll be the bad guys.”
Approximately 1,600 RCMP officers patrol rural Alberta at a cost of roughly $374.8-million a year. The province pays 70 per cent of the bill and Ottawa picks up the remainder, under a formula known as the Provincial Police Services Agreement. (Additional RCMP officers work in Alberta but are not under the PPSA umbrella.)
About 62 per cent of PPSA positions are front-line policing gigs, such as general duty and general investigation. The cost of front-line services totalled $232.5-million in 2018-19, according to documents the provincial government provided to the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, an organization that advocates for the province’s 69 counties and municipal districts.
In April, rural communities will send the province the equivalent of 10 per cent of the PPSA’s overall front-line policing costs. This will increase to 15 per cent next year, 20 per cent in 2022 and 30 per cent by 2023.
The 2023 bill will be a collective $60.3-million, after accounting for subsidies and other variables. The cash may be earmarked for “provincial police service and law enforcement related priorities,” according to documents Alberta provided RMA.
Vulcan County’s payments to the province will equate to $31 per capita this year and reach $93 per capita by 2023, according to government documents.
“It is just reaching deeper into the ratepayers’ pocket," Mr. Schneider said. “We can’t absorb that hit.”
Jonah Mozeson, a spokesman for Alberta’s Ministry of Justice, said Alberta consulted with municipalities and found most smaller communities “did want a new” funding model and additional policing. Local politicians who criticize the province for offloading expenses, he said, do so while arguing in favour of more police.
“Nobody wants to raise taxes, nobody wants to raise property taxes, or taxes on anything, but they always mention the fact that we do need more police,” Mr. Mozeson said. “Even if they are critical, there is also the understanding that there is a crime problem and that more police are necessary.”
He added: “If policing is your priority, and safety is a priority for your citizens ... there could be some of the other priorities you could divert from, or if taxes need to be raised, to ensure that the communities are safer.”
Vulcan County must now edit its 2020 budget plans, and if it raises taxes, Mr. Schneider expects the municipality will explain why in letters to ratepayers. He estimated the mill rate will climb by 2.5 per cent in the first year and up to 7.5 per cent by 2023. Mr. Schneider said his government has trimmed its budget by roughly 30 per cent in the past five years, largely because of the slowdown in oil and gas.
Energy companies owe Alberta’s rural municipalities $81-million in unpaid property taxes; Vulcan County wrote off about $4-million in bad debt in 2019, Mr. Schneider said. Further, the provincial government last year demanded municipalities cancel 35 per cent of property taxes for eligible shallow-gas wells. This equates to a collective $20-million annual drop in municipal property taxes. Alberta will also start to trim capital grants to municipalities this year.
Alberta argues the new policing formula brings rural communities in line with their urban counterparts. A number of cities have their own police forces, sharing costs with the province.
But the urban model is also creating tension under the United Conservative Party government. Calgary and the province, for example, share revenue generated from fines, but the UCP last year increased Alberta’s take at the expense of the city. Calgary argued it will have to raise taxes to make up the shortfall; the UCP told the city to get its finances in order. Mr. Schneider said the government has not said whether it will share policing revenue with small communities.
Rural communities have been begging for better police services and Alberta rolled out the new funding model when it announced plans to hire an additional 300 RCMP officers and 200 civilian support staff over five years. As a result, Alberta’s total share of the PPSA will increase by $200.6-million by 2024, the same amount it expects to collect from rural areas for overall front-line policing during the same stretch.
The new deal between Alberta and its rural municipalities “places priority” on increasing the number of uniformed patrol officers to 1,900 in rural detachments, the province said last December. It will also “add members to specialized RCMP units that dismantle organized crime and drug trafficking and investigate auto and scrap metal theft," the government said in a statement at the time.
But while the province has detailed what each municipality must now pay, it has not provided information on what those communities will get – and when they will get it – in return.
“We have to pay upfront and then expect the service levels to follow,” said Al Kemmere, the president of RMA.
RMA is displeased with how the province is calculating the bills, rather than the fact small communities must now chip in. Rather than divvying up the cost based on population, the province’s formula blends population with property values. By including property values, some physically large but sparsely populated areas are facing hefty bills, Mr. Kemmere said. Counties coated in farmland, oil and gas reserves, or other industrial operations, may have high property values but few residents, for example.
“We are not enamoured with the funding model and the amount that we have to come up with all of a sudden because the province made the announcement and it is on our backs," Mr. Kemmere said.