During the last regular meeting of Woodlands County Council, Director of Corporate Services Alicia Bourbeau presented Council with a financial update up to August 31, 2021. The presentation showed that departments were operating within the financial constraints set on them through the budgeting process and that things were looking up as far as growing their savings.
"Right at the top of the expense area, you'll note that the General Administration is showing a variance of being over budget by $20,000, and that was in direct relationship to the amount of usage that the Tax Incentive Plan used this year. Year to date, we have generated $16,000 in interest on the monies that are in the bank account, so that overbudget is going to be rectified through interest earned."
As for their savings, Bourbeau said they were optimistic that they would "end the year at December 31 with the physical ability to transfer our budgeted one million dollar transfer to reserves. We also want to optimistically state that we will be able to add another 1.5 million physical cash transfer to reserves by year-end." She explained that the 1.5 million was directly related to the Provincial Education Requisition Credit, which they applied for during 2020 and early in 2021 for the tax accounts they had to write off. "(If) Council recalls, that was our ability to claim back through the province the education portion of the taxes that we had to pay even though we remained with those accounts outstanding on our ledgers."
Bourbeau again used the word optimistic to describe how Administration feels heading into the final few months of the year. "As of today, for all years owning, there's currently five million dollars of taxes owed to Woodlands County. Some of those moneys are in the process of being collected through tax agreements that Council initiated or entered into with ratepayers during the year. We were also awarded monies from the sale of some assets from one of the companies. So, still some good news there. I'm happy to report that the companies we made the tax payment agreements with are all in good standing and are making the payments as promised and as we expect to receive them. We have developed some very good rapport with their financial people and ours. In my opinion, some good headway is being made. Of the five million, 3.3 million of that is for current year taxes only, so just for the 2021 year-end. Of that 3.3 million, approximately $250,000 will be collected through the monthly tax payment program. Of the total taxable properties in Woodlands County, there's currently 11.67 percent outstanding."
Councillor Dale Kluin asked how much outstanding Woodlands County is waiting for from the provincial government. "We are waiting for approximately 2.5 million dollars. Much of that is the current year. We anticipate receiving that before the end of the year," replied Bourbeau. "We, as in the County, have also dedicated an individual to be more vigilant on our grant reporting. So, we are making great strides in that and catching up on some files started in prior years and not closed properly. Again, just as our relationships with a lot of our taxation clients, we see much-improved communication with the various grant divisions, and we're looking forward to not having these lingering items."
Mayor John Burrows said he was delighted to hear good news. "I'm glad that people were able to take advantage of that Tax Incentive Plan that we had. I'm really happy to see that we are moving in a positive direction here."
The Tax Incentive Plan was an idea that Mayor Burrows had brought to Council in 2020 to bring money in rather than rely on credit and paying bank fees. "In 2020, we decided to wave the six percent penalty if you were late in paying your taxes. I thought if it's not a priority (to pay the taxes), and I'm not going to incur a penalty, I could spend that money differently for now, and I realized that there might be a lot of other people thinking that way."
He said his goal was to incentivize people to pay on time rather than wait by providing a tax discount. "Administration crunched some numbers and said one percent if you are commercial and three percent if you are residential, off the municipal portion of taxes, not the school portion." He said that the cost of offering the program to Woodlands County residents was between $114,000-$130,000, as most people saved $30-$100. Since Woodlands County would need to borrow off their credit to pay for things if they didn't receive the tax money on time, offering the credit to residents meant the money stayed in Woodlands County rather than being paid to a bank for using their credit. "I voted to keep it in the pockets of residents. I think we came up with a good balance," said Mayor Burrows.
In 2020, the program brought in 60-65 percent of their taxes on time. "We managed to stay liquid and operate on cash through the bulk of the year. In 2021 we were only in our line of credit for thirteen days, meaning very few finance charges. I think it was a very responsible use of taxpayer money." As part of a budget survey, Woodlands County asked residents if they used the Tax Incentive Plan and if they would use it again, and 97 percent of the people said yes. "I'm so happy about it," said Mayor Burrows.
This year, the program was more popular than expected, which cost an additional $20,000, as mentioned by Bourbeau. However, the interest accumulated on the taxes received has nearly generated enough to cover that increased cost. For Mayor Burrows, these ideas to help keep money in residents' pockets are very important to him. "When I got in, we were in one situation, and except for the fact that I wanted not to increase taxes, I've done everything I said I was going to do in that election brochure I ran around with four years ago."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press