10:15 Jun 23, 2021

By: Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter Source: Shootin’ the Breeze

A group of Pincher Creek residents continues to speak out against local government action they say amounts to municipal corruption.

Jim Litkowski, spokesman for Our Voices Matter, first made public the group’s concerns at the Sept. 14 council meeting. Citing a number of issues, including increased taxes, operational spending, debt and inadequate economic and tourism plans, Mr. Litkowski said a municipal inspection from the provincial government was required to get the town back on track.

Despite the town responding to specific points raised during the presentation, Our Voices Matter organized a petition calling for the municipal inspection, which gathered enough signatures — 888, to be exact — to trigger a municipal review from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

The review concluded in April with a letter from Minister Ric McIver identifying “some concerns with respect to the governance and operation of the town,” though the issues were not severe enough to warrant a full inspection.

Instead, the town began a Municipal Accountability Program, which involves administration working with officials from Municipal Affairs to review processes and procedures to help deepen knowledge of legislative requirements.

The accountability program, says Mr. Litkowski, is insufficient for the issues Our Voices Matters sees in local government, with taxes being a major problem.

“Not everybody has deep pockets,” he says. “We spoke to a lot of seniors when we went door to door, and they live from payday to payday. Some of them don’t pay their heat bills or they don’t eat or they don’t pay their electric bill — they have to stretch it as far as they can. They’re trying their damndest.”

Despite the town implementing a zero per cent increase to property taxes this year, Mr. Litkowski says council’s decision to maintain the municipal mill rate while property assessments increase is still creating financial burdens.

“Our mill rate is as high as it can go,” he continues. “As the price is going up, instead of the mill rate going down, the town is going ‘Give us more.’ Why?”

The amount of taxes collected, Mr. Litkowski adds, is not justified by the services the town provides. He also points to a steadily increasing operations budget as a sign residents will be on the hook for expenditures for years to come.

The town has stated increasing spending corresponds with the increasing number of grants received, something Our Voices Matter says is ultimately still funded by taxpayers. The group also says much of the town’s spending isn’t appropriately prioritized.

With big project proposals like an outdoor amphitheater and a new curling rink, members of Our Voices Matter say the process of public consultation is lacking.

“There’s a lot missing, like where did that all come from? What was the process? How did they end up deciding what they decided?” says Ianthe Goodfellow. “The process is not really very clear. The town hasn’t been very transparent.”

Additionally, Ms. Goodfellow relates a personal experience trying to make a presentation to the facilities committee in 2019 about potential curling rink locations. Due to insufficient attendance from committee members, the facilities committee was eventually suspended Dec. 2.

Disbanding the committee prevents the public from voicing their input on a multimillion-dollar capital project, Ms. Goodfellow says, adding that the breaks in communication are suspicious and appear deliberate, which is why Our Voices Matter wants a municipal inspection.

“They were trying to cut the trial of public knowledge,” she says.

Although the new curling rink site is still in the preliminary phase of its proposal, the fact the steering committee is only considering designs for a location next to the golf course, Ms. Goodfellow adds, means the outcome is practically predetermined.

Mayor responds

Criticizing local government over tax rates isn’t anything new, says Mayor Don Anderberg, and simply saying council should lower the mill rate to accommodate rising property assessments doesn’t account for the budgetary needs that establish the mill rate calculation in the first place.

Adjusting the budget, the mayor adds, would decrease taxes but would result in less services being provided.

“Generally over the years everybody wants good quality services,” he says. “I’m not hearing that from the citizens that they’re willing to shut the pool down.”

Much of budget expenses for services are also beyond council’s control, like the federal carbon tax.

“When that street sweeper goes out there, it’s running on fuel that’s 40 per cent higher than it was last year,” Mayor Anderberg says. “So who pays for that?”

The concerns Our Voices Matter raise over inadequate public consultation for proposed projects like the amphitheatre and curling rink, he continues, stem from misunderstanding the town’s development process.

Opportunities for public input are provided through municipal plans, information nights and studies, such as the recently completed recreation master plan.

Mayor Anderberg also points out the presentations for the amphitheatre and curling rink were initiated by groups independent of town council, and presenting to council is the first step to see if a proposal is even viable.

Even with council support, every development project requires permitting and often land rezoning, both of which require public input before moving forward.

“I don’t think anybody is trying to do the wrong thing,” says Mayor Anderberg. “That’s the issue: it’s a matter of trust. Some people don’t trust anybody. You got to trust that the process will work.”

Council’s decision to suspend the facilities committee, he continues, wasn’t an attempt to stifle public input but resulted from working more closely with the MD of Pincher Creek. Funding for facilities in Pincher Creek is shared between the two municipalities, and he says the facilities committee did not provide the MD with adequate representation.

Since signing an intermunicipal collaboration framework, the town and MD have created an ICF committee where topics like facilities are discussed between the two councils, making the facilities committee redundant.

Any resident who would like to express their views, says Mayor Anderberg, is welcome to contact administration for either council and schedule a time to present as a delegation.

Oct. 18, 2021

With or without Municipal Affairs conducting an inspection, Our Voices Matter says the local government will be held accountable at the upcoming municipal election.

Despite voicing the group’s concerns, Mr. Litkowski says his involvement with Our Voices Matter is not aimed at seeking a position with the next town council. Mr. Litkowski previously served as a town councillor from 2015 to 2017 after filling a mid-term vacancy on council.

“I don’t gain anything from this movement,” he says. “All I gain is the satisfaction that I’ve maybe have helped a lot of the senior citizens, the single parents on fixed incomes, the people who can’t find an affordable house to live in in this town or won’t come to live in this town because the jobs don’t pay enough for them to get a place to live.”

“This is supposed to be a community,” he adds, “and right now most of the people don’t think of it as a community.”

People choosing their local representatives at the polls, says Mayor Anderberg, is a process he welcomes.

“With an election coming up, if someone has an intention of sending someone else then vote for them and continue on,” he says.

“I’ve always said I’d work hard in the best interests of the community and that’s what I’ve done, I believe, for the most part with anything I had control over,” he continues. “I guess if there’s people out there thinking it’s not good then get someone else.”

Nominations for the Oct. 18 municipal election close Sept. 20. More information is available online at bit.ly/AB_elections.

— The original news report for this is behind a paywall at ShootintheBreeze newspaper in Pincher Creek, Alberta. This report is republished with permission.

Source Title: Our Voices Matter says transparency issues remain