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Hold the line: Calgary city council will face tough decisions to maintain 1% tax hike

While Calgarians are looking at a proposed one per cent tax rate increase, keeping it there might be a challenge.

Earlier this week, the proposed 2022 budget adjustments were delivered to councillors. In it, they found two tax rate increase scenarios: One a .64 per cent increase, the other .99 per cent. The latter would include a proposed $6 million increase to the Calgary police budget for the hiring of 38 positions.

If the .99 per cent budget is adopted, it would mean a roughly $5 increase per month in property tax on a typical Calgary single-detached home.

City manager David Duckworth said given the direction from the prior council, they felt it prudent to whittle the increase down as close to zero as possible. Duckworth told councillors it’s got to the point where they’re spending far too much time finding little savings.

“There were no stones unturned,” he said.

“We’ve worked so hard to push as much as we can, we just got to the point where I couldn’t see the organization pushing much more because the harder be pushed, the less we’re actually going to find.”

Funding more programs

Listening to the discussion in council chambers Monday, several councillors implied there are areas that could benefit from additional funding.  

Ward 8’s Courtney Walcott asked administration about additional funding for affordable housing.   

Again, Duckworth reiterated the direction they’ve been given is to aim for a zero per cent tax increase.

“We’re telling you today we can’t get to zero,” he said.

“And as Ms. (City CFO Carla) Male pointed out, if you want to get to zero there’s about $17 million of additional reductions we are looking at.”

Trees were on the mind of Coun. Andre Chabot and a better plan to replace older trees with something less destructive to sidewalks.

Ward 5’s Raj Dhaliwal asked what bucket of money was being allocated to funding climate-related projects. Dhaliwal put forward the motion to declare a climate emergency.

Again, Duckworth said they’ve been slowly funding what they could under the city’s climate resilience plan.

“I think part of the climate emergency declaration is fast-tracking some of those commitments,” he said.

“I can tell you, we don’t have a lot of funding in the current budget to fast track those commitments. So, if council’s interested in fast-tracking some of that work, we would need additional investments that you did not see today.”

It also came up during the discussion that the city hadn’t funded the recently approved Greater Downtown strategy beyond last year’s one-time cash.   That program saw $200 million put forward as seed money to jumpstart office conversions and launch capital projects.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said it was an oversight by the last council. They would have to look at finding money to continue funding it.

The one per cent budget

After Monday’s discussion, Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean felt the proposed budget was a good start. He said a zero per cent tax rate increase would have been nice.

“And I think as long as you don’t add a whole bunch of more things to it, we should be fine,” he said.

When Mayor Gondek was asked if she was confident the tax rate would stay at one per cent, she said there are a lot of factors to consider. Recent citizen satisfaction survey results identify what citizens are expecting, she said.

“I think the mood is still one of exploring and investigating what it is that we need to do Calgarians,” she said.

“I think serving the best interests of Calgarians should not be stuck on a number.  What we need to do is figure out what it is that people are seeking to have a great quality of life in our city, and then we figure out what the numbers look like from there.”

Ward 11’s Kourtney Penner said most on council realize a tax increase isn’t in the best interest of many Calgarians. Councillors are fresh off the campaign trail where they heard about citizen needs, she said.  

She said there are already discussions around potential spending deferrals to 2023. That could free up cash for priority areas in this budget.

“We have to get, as always, to striking a balance between service delivery and affordability,” Penner said.

Initial funding for programs doesn’t always come from that year’s operational budget. In years past, city council has drawn from city reserves to help cover tax-supported costs. Those costs, however, could be added to future operations budgets.

City council will continue to discuss the budget in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 22-26 budget meetings.

Public submissions are invited. Citizens can also arrange to present during the public hearing on Nov. 22.