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Crowd comes out to voice concern over taxes

More than 200 people made their way out to a “town meeting” held by a Penhold resident for people to address concerns about property tax rates.
Quite a crowd came out to Ken McCarthy’s home in Penhold to talk concerns about property taxes on June 27.
Quite a crowd came out to Ken McCarthy’s home in Penhold to talk concerns about property taxes on June 27.

More than 200 people made their way out to a “town meeting” held by a Penhold resident for people to address concerns about property tax rates.

Ken McCarthy put a sign up in his yard advising people not to buy property in Penhold on June 18, though it was quickly replaced by a sign calling for a town meeting instead.

On June 27 the meeting was held in McCarthy's yard. His sign-in records showed 242 people attended and 204 signed the petition he is circulating that calls for Municipal Affairs to review town council and administration.

Eighteen people volunteered to help circulate the petition, he said.

“The provincial government is going to be called in to do a review,” McCarthy said, a comment which received applause from the crowd.

According to Michelle Davio of Municipal Affairs, 20 per cent of the electors in Penhold have to sign the petition for it go forward.

McCarthy reviewed his own concerns, which include his belief the town council is anti-commercial development, that the town is “grossly overstaffed” and the fact that he's paying $5,200 in taxes on his property that was assessed at $449,000.

Several other people took to the microphone to express their concerns about their property taxes.

Brandie Bowman told the crowd when she moved to Penhold two years ago her taxes were $1,660. A few weeks later she got a call saying she owed the town $2,700. Now her taxes are $3,200 for her small home, she said.

“I live in a sardine can,” Bowman said.

Bev Herzog told the crowd she won't be able to afford to retire in Penhold because of the increase to her taxes.

“I will have to move into houses that I've seen in Red Deer,” Herzog said.

A resident of Penhold for over 22 years, Byron Allison said his taxes have increased over the years from $1,200 to $3,600 and yet he has to dodge manhole covers every day on his street.

“We've got to get more commercial here,” Allison said.

Water and sewage problems in town were Marlene Lamb's concern, and she said it was her opinion the town isn't worried about it.

“Does anybody care? Not the town,” Lamb said to the meeting. “Somebody has got to be accountable here.”

A recent addition to Penhold is Jeremy Weddell, who said he just moved here in December 2011. On the real estate listing for his house his taxes were listed at $3,300 – though he did say that turned out to be from 2010.

“Last week when I opened my mail, my taxes were $5,300,” he said. “If I could sell the place I probably would.”

“The assessment's fine, it's the mill rate that's the problem,” Weddell said.

Chad Hoffman, attending the meeting as a taxpayer instead of a town councillor, encouraged people to get involved with the economic development committee, by voting, attending meetings and even running for council.

“We need more public involvement,” Hoffman said.

Mayor Dennis Cooper responded to several of the points raised in an interview on June 28.

Regarding the sentiment that council is anti-commercial, he pointed to the economic development committee that was created to help try and get new business to Penhold and network the current business base.

“We're definitely pro-business,” Cooper said. “We all want industrial and commercial.”

Cooper pointed to the fact that council voted down suggestions from administration to purchase a tanning bed for the fitness centre or run the multiplex concession in response to people's concerns the town was going into competition with local businesses.

“I think the actions of council speak loudly,” Cooper said.

Cooper said despite concerns about how much the multiplex costs to run, revenues help defray the deficit to about $400,000 that are made up through the town's other sources of revenue.

There were calls from the crowd on June 27 to find out how much the mayor and council make and to open the books. The town's financial information is open to the public and Cooper said anyone can call him to have him go through it with them.

“I would be quite willing to sit down with anyone … and do a page-turning exercise,” Cooper said.

Whether or not the town has too many staff is a matter of opinion, Cooper said, but the town has “a very tight budget” and doesn't have the extra money for extra staff.

“We have to let the managers manage,” he said. At the end of the year if there's a way to cut costs without losing services – or a desire to have the service levels drop – staffing levels can be looked at, he said.

An example of town spending that came up during the town meeting was a purchase a few years ago of a new street sweeper instead of a used one. Cooper said the cost was about $220,000, but the previous council decided to get a new one because the old street sweeper had been bought used and the maintenance costs were high and it broke down often.

The new street sweeper is stored outside because even though public works needs a new shop, a new one is not being built because the town doesn't have the money, Cooper said.

This is the first year taxes have increased in three years, Cooper has said in the past. Residential property tax rates went up about 4.75 per cent, with almost half of that increase being caused by an increase in provincial education requisition rates. The municipality has no control over the education requisition amount.

The assessment property taxes are based on the market value of the property, Cooper said. Diversifying the tax base by getting more industrial and commercial companies in town would help relieve some of the burden on homeowners.

While some at the meeting were concerned about the services they receive for their tax dollars, Cooper said “you get trapped in a corner” because people want services without their taxes going up.

“We're trying to get to the streets and fix them up,” Cooper said, noting most of it will be patch work. He said a higher priority for council is addressing water quality and stormwater management issues.

“We do care,” Cooper said about the water problems in Penhold. Problems are being addressed through education, designing the new sections of the town to not have the same problems and looking at redesign for other areas.

One of the targets of concern from those at the McCarthys' home on June 27 was Rick Binnendyk, the chief administrative officer for Penhold.

Cooper said Binnendyk has worked for the town for 12 years, during which time the population has gone from 1,500 to over 2,300 residents.

“He has got millions and millions … of dollars in grants,” Cooper said of Binnendyk's efforts on behalf of the town.

As for McCarthy's petition, his volunteers will be collecting signatures. Meanwhile, he's already got a new sign at the end of his driveway that reads, “We will not go away. Mayor, council, CAO, wake up. 250 people can't be wrong. Reduce property taxes 20 per cent now.”