Council to debate property tax and utility bill relief measures at special Wednesday meeting

Prince Albert City Hall -- Herald File Photo.

Prince Albert city council will hold a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss further financial relief for residents hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic.

The agenda includes a motion allowing property owners to apply for property tax payment deferrals, plus another waiving penalties on unpaid utility bills from April 1 to Sept. 30.

“Taxpayers are facing times of employment layoffs due to the closure of employer’s offices, business closures and childcare issues due to the closure of schools, daycares and others,” reads a report jointly authored by financial services director Cheryl Tkachuk, city solicitor Mitch Holash and city assessor Vanessa Vaughan. “The number of telephone inquiries increases each day as taxpayers are inquiring about short-term relief.”

Prince Albert property owners have until June 30 to pay their property taxes, and city administrators are recommending that deadline remain in place. However, they have urged council to allow residents to apply for property tax deferrals, which would move the payment deadline back to Sept. 30. All applications would have to be received by June 15.

City council will also debate the requirements for receiving a tax deferral. Administration has recommended giving them to residents whose employment has been terminated for at least six weeks due to COVID-19, or for residents who could pay their property taxes but then would not have sufficient income or financial resources to pay for necessities.

Businesses can receive a deferral if they lost at least 40 per cent of gross business revenue as a result of “market impacts” that can reasonably be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. They must also lack the income or resources to pay their property taxes by June 30.

The City of Regina and City of Saskatoon have already provided similar relief measures for property owners, as have the City of Swift Current and the City of Estevan.

Deferring property taxes will be a major hit to the City’s finances. Council will likely have to take out a $10 million short-term loan or line of credit to keep city services running.

The City’s financial department expected to receive nearly $58 million in property taxes this year prior to the pandemic. Roughly $10.8 million has already been collected.

Council will also consider waiving fees on overdue utility invoices, a move that will cost the City an average of more than $30,000 per month. A report from Natara Kulcher, Prince Albert’s service delivery coordinator, says that merely reducing the fee penalties will not be enough to help property owners. She also wrote that failing to make any changes would simply result in a lot of bills not being paid.

The City is still sending out monthly water bills, but is not shutting the water off for unpaid accounts.

“We already recognize there will be financial hardships on account holders,” Kulcher wrote. “Adding penalties would only increase the amount of outstanding and possibly uncollectable accounts.”

Kulcher added that waiving penalties for less than six months would not help since the financial hardship caused by COVID-19 is expected to last at least that long. She also wrote that even if the city defers payments, it council still take residents several months to get caught up on their bills.

Saskatoon and Regina have both waived utility penalty charges for the next six months, and have suspected service disconnections for unpaid accounts. However, neither city approved deferring utility payments.

The City of Moose Jaw has also stopped disconnecting water services for unpaid bills, but has offered no financial relief for late fees.

Wednesday’s council meeting gets underway at 4 p.m. in the City Hall council chamber.