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Calgary city council gets first taste of proposed four-year budget

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer said Calgary’s upcoming budget process would be a “dance” of sorts.

Councillors and the public will get their first glimpse of the admin prepared four-year Calgary budget (2023-2026) at Tuesday’s city council meeting.   It’s part one of the process that will see the city lay down its fiscal path for the coming years.

Earlier this summer, councillors got an admin tee-up on the budget. There, councillors put a 3.65 per cent cap on budget growth requiring property tax revenue. Add in roughly 1.5 per cent to cover development and redevelopment costs and Calgarians are looking at a potentially robust property tax increase.

The total city budget is expected to go from $4.2 billion in 2022 to $4.86 billion in 2026.

What could hold the increase at bay this year is a growth in property assessment values. That allows the property tax mill rate to be lowered.

Still, keeping the lid on the city’s finances is going to be a challenge, Spencer said.  A combination of restraint and moving resources from “one bucket to another” to address priority areas will be key, he said. Some areas may have to wait until mid-cycle budget adjustments for budget boosts, he said.

“I think my worry will be that everyone will think we need to tackle all those priorities simultaneously in this four-year budget,” he said.

“I think that’s one of the places where this budget could go a little bit off the rails.”

Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot also thought there may be some flexibility in the budget. Particularly in reallocating tax dollars that go to capital programs back into the operating budget.

“That would be a worthwhile thing to pursue right now,” Chabot said.

A slight majority of Calgarians (54 per cent) in the fall Citizen Satisfaction Survey indicated they would be willing to accept an increase to taxes based on current inflation to maintain or increase services. Four in 10 wanted services cut to maintain or reduce tax levels.

Gauging the appetite for service increases

Once the budget overview is delivered Tuesday, they wait until Nov. 21 to hash things out in earnest. The first day is typically city business units and civic partners who defend their budget asks and answer questions from councillors.

Day two will likely be geared towards the public. Depending on the number of speakers, that could spill into a third day. Then, the rubber hits the road and over the final day or two council delivers a four-year budget.

In between Nov. 8 and 21, there’s one or two conversations among councillors.

Spencer said the strategic planning that’s been done over the past year was helpful to narrow in on council priorities.

“In terms of exactly what strategies need to be employed to go after those, I imagine there’s going to be some diverse opinions on how that is tackled,” he said.

Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp said councillors have a lot of thinking to do. Right now, she’s expecting a tax number to be between four-and-five per cent. Even then, given some of the needs, it might not be realistic to stay within that.

“As councillors, we have a lot of thinking to do; revenues, budget, and maybe some opportunities to put things on pause or phase things out within the four years to see what we can do,” she said.

“But I’m telling you, this isn’t going to go over well for Calgarians.” 

Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said she not sure what to expect from this budget. She said we might see a bigger than expected investment in at least one or two keys area from the council set priorities.

It will come at the expense of immediate investments in other areas, Penner said.

“Those are sometimes the trade-offs and the decisions that we make,” she said.

Will it get us further ahead?

Penner expects many of the decisions will come down to making investments Calgarians will notice.

“I think the questions will be: What is this getting us, how much further is it moving us ahead,” she said.

“Are people going to feel a tangible difference from this investment.”

The July budget preview outlined seven council focus area. Those included the downtown revitalization, social equity, land use and planning, transit, hosting and hospitality, global reputation and modernizing the government.

Coun. Sharp said some councillors have already spoken about some of the areas they want to fund and where they think investment should be paused – or even cut completely. She said from now until Nov. 21, the 15 of them will have to determine what’s important, while recognizing Calgarians are already beaten up financially by inflation and rising interest rates. Further, wage growth has been minimal.

Cut completely, you say?

“Things that don’t have the return on the investment for your citizens,” Sharp said.

“If you can’t measure it, is it something we need to be doing right now?”

Spencer said he expect a number of amendments to come forward. There will be robust debate over the next three weeks about what’s important for Calgary.  

It will be different than last year. Council was new, and it was the final year of the last four-year budget. They created an add-on package everyone could live with, streamlining the budget process as new councillors absorbed fire-hose levels of information.

“I think it’s going be a dance.”

“And I don’t get the sense that there’s an already pre-charted path through it all at all.”