Chamber hears how Nobleford grew, reduced taxes
By Rob Vogt
Nobleford really is a modern municipal miracle, going from a declining population, few job opportunities and high property taxes, to attracting businesses, creating jobs and reducing taxes by 90 per cent.
Growth was the objective in order to survive.
At the centre of that activity was Kirk Hofman, who was Nobleford’s chief administrative officer.
He was the guest speaker at the Claresholm and District Chamber of Commerce’s annual general meeting on March 1 at Roy’s Place.
Hofman took everyone back to 1899 when this area was all prairie.
Charles Noble came to Claresholm where he built the biggest farm in the British Empire, only to lose it all by 1922.
Yet, Noble rebounded, coming back in 1930.
He had patented the Noble Blade for plowing fields.
“It changed the way dryland farming was done,” Hofman said.
It started a manufacturing boom in Nobleford that ushered in a 40-year glory period.
At one point, 150 people worked for Noble, and Noble paid more than 50 per cent of the property tax.
Then in 1978 the Noble family sold the plant, and things never came back to where they were.
Between 1982 and 2002, there were eight different owners of the former Noble plant.
Meanwhile Hofman, whose ancestors homesteaded at Nobleford, went to college in Lethbridge. There he met his wife and they decided to move back to Nobleford.
He was hired as chief administrative officer in 2004, after complaining about the water to his neighbour – who also happened to be deputy mayor.
Initially, he did not want to be the chief administrative officer, because he had been a councillor for 10 years and a school board trustee.
So he was hired to fix the water.
“We needed water,” Hofman said. “We couldn’t grow.”
With no water, no one would come to the community.
Nobleford had about $500,000 in the bank, but it would cost $4 million for a water treatment plant. So they looked at bringing water from somewhere else. However, Picture Butte, Lethbridge and Lethbridge County all said no.
Hofman travelled with Nobleford’s mayor to look at a membrane water filtration system, kind of like a Brita water filter.
They changed engineers and told the new one to find a way to make this work.
One option was this new membrane system, at a cost of $2 million.
Nobleford convinced the supplier to pilot the system in their community for free for six months. The system worked well, so Nobleford went to the province who had grants available.
They were able to negotiate 75 per cent funding from the province, after meeting with ministers and their MLA by their side.
The village had to borrow $500,000 as well, but the water plant was on track.
With a secure water supply, Nobleford asked where do they go now?
The mayor said they had to stop catering to the Citizens Against Virtually Everything, or CAVErs, and develop a business plan.
That plan started in 2004 was the same in 2021.
Five objectives were identified: water; modernize; marketing; jobs; and property assessment and property tax.
The water, sewer and garbage rate was $105 per month, and was reduced to $55 per month. Money was also put in a reserve, funded by revenue.
Modernizing meant rebuilding or building new municipally-owned water and sewer lines, paved roads, waste management, green-space parks, and playgrounds. It also meant building something new every year without expense to the property tax payer; aggressively applying for grants; securing private sector support; building volunteers and becoming effective and efficient in management. The goal was to create a modern municipality that will attract people to live and do business to thrive.
Marketing meant putting Nobleford on the map with a positive vision.
“The world had to pay attention to Nobleford,” Hofman said.
They had to use business management skill and sense, political awareness, and use and build external public and private contacts.
Jobs were attracted by restructuring Nobleford’s policies and bylaws to welcome business people, as well as aggressively inspire competitive entrepreneurship, business relocation and existing business growth. Incentives and opportunities were provided, but not handouts.
Effectiveness was judged by the number of new jobs and buildings.
Property assessment and taxes meant the taxes had to go down. Nobleford measured its effectiveness by setting a goal of increasing total assessment by 100 per cent in 10 years. That meant going from $20 million to $40 million. Now it is at $120 million.
In order to grow, Nobleford needed population growth and that meant residential land development.
Not one private developer was interested, so the Village of Nobleford became its own developer, designing a 240-lot residential subdivision, and planned for a 10-lot industrial subdivision.
It was divided into five phases and Nobleford began to market it itself. The 45 residential lots sold out in Phase 1 in one year, the second phase in two weeks, and the third phase in one day. By 2009, 120 new houses were being built.
What attracts business to a community is an abundant, loyal, skilled labour force; strong infrastructure; less bureaucracy; low taxes and fees. Nobleford had some of the lowest land prices, lowest utility fees, lowest property tax in Alberta, eliminated the franchise fees on natural gas and electricity, and eliminated business licence fees.
In fact, Hofman said between 2008 and 2021 Nobleford kept the lowest taxes in Alberta. The next was about 50 per cent more.
He said everyone wanted to know how Nobleford did it.
Hofman pointed to what he calls the “Money tree”.
Nobleford could not raise taxes any further. Instead, the idea is to multiply money, save it, and multiply it again and again to survive and maybe prosper.
Some of the strategies included stacking grants; reducing the costs of the middleman; administration efficiency; a do-it-yourself approach to almost everything; cost recovery on everything; avoiding special interests and not bowing to citizens against virtually everything.
The fundamental approach was to not go into debt on anything without a financial return, never spend money on anything without getting a matching grant, and turn every tax dollar into a minimum of $3 before anything is purchased. Cost recovery not taxation was the fundamental approach.
Hofman also noted part of the underlying philosophy was work where you live/live where you work.
There were those who chalked up Nobleford’s success to luck, but Hofman disagreed, noting how could they be lucky for 15 years.
“We worked hard,” he said. “We never quit.”
Instead their population went from 500 to 1,500 in 10 years. The federal government took the census twice because they could not believe that large of an increase.
He concluded with a simple message.
“You need to look out for what’s good for the whole community,” Hofman said.
He added government has to take before it gives, so instead leave the money in the taxpayers’ hands.