Council gives final approval to new $35 base tax, rejects amendment to reduce amount for non-profit housing providers

Prince Albert City Hall. Herald File Photo

Prince Albert city council voted 8-1 in favour of passing the 2021 Property Tax Bylaw, which includes a new $35 base tax to fund four new sworn officer positions with the Prince Albert Police Force.

They also rejected an amendment that would have seen Prince Albert’s non-profit housing corporations pay a reduced amount.

Mayor Greg Dionne said residents made it loud and clear during the last election that crime was their number one concern, and paying for more police officers is one of several ways they’re looking to address the problem.

“(Reducing crime) is actually what my opponent ran on, and you can see how successful that (issue) was to him,” Dionne said after the meeting. “People responded and wanted crime dealt with, so we are dealing with that.”

Dionne added that the City plans to create a group to lobby the provincial and federal governments to help prevent crime before it happens.

“Homelessness, addictions, and other problems we have in our city are their responsibility, and they have to step up and start doing something,” he said. “This homelessness issue—I just got off a national call and it’s a national problem, especially with COVID.”

Council has faced allegations that they were trying to sneak a new tax passed residents after promising a zero per cent property tax increase in the City budget. Dionne defended council’s decision following Wednesday’s meeting, saying the base tax was a tax tool, which was different than raising property taxes. Prince Albert has two other base taxes which pay for snow removal, infrastructure and road upgrades and maintenance.

“It’s how we pay for things, and it’s a different monster,” he said. “Those people who got negative comments, in some cases they solicit them, and when you’re a negative person and you put a negative comment out on Facebook, you’re going to negative comments back.”

Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp was the only person to vote against the base tax during the final reading. She argued the Board of Police Commissioners had only asked council for $227,700 from the fiscal budget for new officers in 2021, which was significantly lower than the $554,505 the $35 police base tax will raise. She also repeated concerns raised on Monday about the base tax being inequitable.

“Although not perfect, using the mill rate means that people with greater ability to pay end up paying more and people with lesser ability pay less,” she told the Daily Herald in an email. “When we use base taxes it disrupts the purpose of the mill rate. It transfers the tax burden from those with those with the most means to those with the least. This contributes to additional criminal activity, social problems and disparities of wealth.”

Ward 1 Coun. Charlene Miller voted against the base tax during the first two readings on Monday, and reversed course and gave it her support on Wednesday.

Miller said she would rather see a user-pay model in place, where the properties most frequently visited by police would pay the most. However, she acknowledged the City already had bylaws in place to deal with those properties, and was willing to see if they worked as intended.

“I didn’t want the $35 (base tax), however it is what it is,” she said afterwards.

Council rejects amendment to reduce new base tax for non-profit housing corporations

An amendment to reduce the base tax to an unspecified amount for the Prince Albert Housing Authority and other non-profit housing providers failed by a 6-3 margin at Monday’s meeting.

Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp brought forward the motion, which would have seen city administration review the tax, and recommend a reduced amount for discussion at a future meeting. She worried the non-profit groups would be unable to find the extra cash to pay the tax unless they cut programs and services, or cut down on repairs and new construction projects.

“Citizens do not want our City to offer less affordable housing and less programs for seniors,” she said.

Couns. Ted Zurakowski and Charlene Miller also voted in favour of the amendment.

When asked about his decision to vote against the amendment, Mayor Greg Dionne said the City already has agreements with some of these groups to share capital costs. He also repeated comments made on Monday about the overwhelming number of calls for police service coming from rental housing units.

“We have one (rental property) that has over 402 calls per year,” Dionne said after the meeting. “I hope those (housing) groups phone me because then I can say that directly to them…. If they would hire security (and) make sure their doors lock, we probably wouldn’t receive so many calls.”

Dionne said large housing complexes are a major concern. He said too many residents open the outside doors for anyone who buzzes their apartment, which is increasing the amount of crime in those areas.

“Unfortunately, people have a habit—when you push enough buttons, somebody is going to let you in,” he said.