Medicine Hat ratepayer association slams MCAF, tax rate hike in town hall

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Medicine Hat ratepayer association slams MCAF, tax rate hike in town hall

February 1, 2024

The Medicine Hat Utilities Ratepayer Association insisted Tuesday it’s here to stay as its leadership pitched its value to residents as a municipal watchdog and criticized the city’s utility fees, energy profits and tax rates.

The association — sparked from the backlash over skyrocketing utility rates last summer — returned to Higdon Hall at the Stampede where it held its first meeting in 2023, this time with only about 50 seats filled.

The ratepayer group, known as MHURA, again criticized a utility charge listed on bills as the municipal consent access fee.

That MCAF charge is already under consideration as part of a broader third-party review of COMCO, which city council told MHURA in December.

MHURA leadership maintained the MCAF should be considered separate from that review because its intention is not related to utilities.

“The MCAF doesn’t have anything to do with the utilities…it was implemented because they had a deficit,” association president Sounantha Boss said.

“That deficit has been mostly served, we’re now at a $6 million shortfall,” she told reporters.

CHAT News has reached out to the City of Medicine Hat to verify her statement.

Municipal consent access fees are commonly used by municipalities for third-party utility companies setting up shop on city-owned property.

The utility then downloads the cost to customers to make up the money.

Despite having a publicly-owned utility company, Medicine Hat council in 2018 added the MCAF to fill a $16 million deficit in its budget.

In a response to the association in December, city council confirmed “the items referenced in the letter will be informed by the third-party review of the city’s energy business that city council directed in September 2023.”

“In addition to confirming the overall strategic approach for our energy business moving forward, the review will also inform where we go with the Municipal Consent and Access Fee in the future,” council said in a statement.

A sometimes raucous public question-and-answer period bounced between queries over how MCAF came to be, complaints over how the city operates and even condemnations over Canada’s green energy plans.

Answers from MHURA largely remained focused on criticizing the city’s financial decisions but sometimes lacked context.

For example, residents raised concerns over a $263,000 boost for Co-op Place city council approved at its Jan. 15 meeting.

While city staff acknowledged it could result in a 0.25 per cent increase to taxes, they said the extra cash will protect the event centre as a revenue-generating project for the city.

Most members of council agreed in a 7-2 vote.

Residents said the new Co-op Place funding was an unnecessary expense.

Association members did not follow up with the context around why the funding was approved.

Boss at one point also agreed with a resident that the city’s manager for energy, land and the environment was “incompetent”, particularly in the realm of energy transition.

MHURA’s leadership was asked by reporters how it aims to be an organization focused on giving only the facts around city decisions for residents to take in.

“You don’t,” replied MHURA board member Gord Cowan.

“The people are going to express what the people feel,” Cowan added.

“And you’re exactly right, misinformation about the Co-op [Place], misinformation about this, misinformation about [that], where does that misinformation come from? City hall.”

Changes to the Co-op Place budget were discussed at a public council meeting on Jan. 15.

CHAT News has reached out for comment from the City of Medicine Hat.

Boss and Cowan repeated the Medicine Hat Utilities Ratepayer Association’s slogan “spend less, tax less” several times during the town hall.

But when asked what the association would support cutting from the annual $153 million municipal operating budget, Cowan said he was unable to point to specific items without more research.

“With some research, I’d love to answer your question,” Cowan said.

Boss jumped in to say the city should start by removing a four per cent tax increase approved for 2024 and MCAF.

“We need to first cut this 4 per cent tax hike, and we need to cut MCAF; that’s going to help citizens right now,” Boss said.

Boss added she’s hopeful a new council would look for efficiencies in every department.

City council at its Nov. 20 meeting approved changes to the 2024 budget that will improve the city’s ongoing municipal budget gap by nearly $800,000.

A four per cent tax increase with the budget update was already pre-approved by council in 2022 as part of the budget process.

City corporate services manager Dennis Egert at the November meeting said the update allows for the city to adjust halfway through it’s regular two-year budget cycle.

“The 2024 budget update accounts for the difference between conditions during the original budget planning cycle and our current environment as well as updated assumptions into the next year,” Egert said.

by Eli J. Ridder | @EliRidder

Medicine Hat ratepayer association slams MCAF, tax rate hike in town hall

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