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Calgary budget – Day 2: Transit, public safety top talkers in public hearing

Calgarians had their say Tuesday as the public hearing portion of the four-year budget took centre stage.

It was day two of the 2023-2026 Service Plans and Budget process, and councillors heard from dozens of speakers. Many of the speakers Tuesday represented different groups or organizations hoping for a boost in funding, or a reprioritization of city funding into different areas.

Transit, mobility – and through that climate – along with public safety were the primary topics on the minds of presenters.  Councillors also heard spillover presentations from civic partners like Vecova and Contemporary Calgary who also has council’s ear on day 1 of proceedings as well.

Calgary city council is trying to stay within a population and inflation property tax revenue cap of 3.65 per cent they directed to administration.  With development and redevelopment costs baked in to costs, the tax impact for a typical single-family detached dwelling valued at $550,000 would be $10 per month.

Most of the speakers supported tax rate increase overall to keep services, some wanted even more to improve services.

“We need more from this budget,” said Pete Meadows.

“As a property owner, I’m aware that the city’s primary source of revenue is taxes from people like me. I was going to couch my request in terms of investment, but I’ve decided to be direct and ask you to tax us enough.” 

Meadows said he was willing to pay his share to invest in a better city.

“I understand the difference between paying now and paying more later,” he said.

Business tax distribution raised by Chamber

Calgary Chamber of Commerce CEO Deborah Yedlin was advocating for the city to migrate away from the current tax distribution ratio of 4 to 1 ($4 of tax revenue from biz for every $1 from homeowners).

“Affordability remains the primary concern cited by businesses, and this is particularly an issue as we have seen costs increase, inflation rise, supply chain challenges and of course, labor pressures,” she said.

Currently, the city’s non-residential properties, which make up 18 per cent of properties, cover 48 per cent of property tax revenue. Residential properties make up 52 per cent.  Yedlin would like to see that change by two per cent annually so it gets to a 60 (resi) and 40 (non-resi).

“We have the second largest number of small and medium sized enterprises per capita in the country,” Yedlin said.

“We have to make sure that they can stay competitive and have the advantages that they need in order to succeed.”

Andrew Sennyah, who represented the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said they support the Chamber’s proposal. They, too, believe shifting the burden will help local business.

“The typical Calgary business was carrying almost $115,000 of debt because of the pandemic and are expected to take approximately two years to repay that debt.” he said.

“For small businesses of the city, property taxes have been cited as the most harmful to the operation of their business, followed by energy and utility costs.”

Coun. Sonya Sharp asked Yedlin what they could say to residents by giving a bigger break to Calgarians.  

Yedlin said for a one per cent shift, homeowners would pay an extra $46 annually, versus a $2,000 savings for a (roughly $5 million) business.

Transportation and public safety

Two issues that popped up repeatedly during the proceedings involved transit and public safety.  

Alison Karim-McSwiney, executive director of the International Avenue Business Revitalization Zone, said she believes there’s an “extreme lack of frontline police resources” in the east Calgary area around 17 Avenue SE.

“Our police are our key part to our safety in our communities and our Calgary main streets are being unduly affected due to the amount of public property and the proximity to transit,” she said.

“We are thankful that they continue to try to do their best despite lack of manpower.”

Codey McIntyre with the Calgary Firefighters Association also talked about the “broken” Calgary fire department due to a lack of funding. They’re hoping to see at least another $10 million added to the $38 million already being added to the city budget for fire coverage.

Several speakers brought up a commitment to Calgary’s primary transit network. This service would deliver transit service at more rapid intervals on the city’s highest ridership routes.

David Cooper, a former transit planner with Calgary Transit, said many cities have gone towards either a 10 or 15-minute service level.

“This is not an idea or a concept that’s requiring additional funding. It’s something that can be put forward in your budget,” he said.

It would require changing the city’s coverage-based service model, which tries to put transit in far-flung parts of Calgary without ridership, he said. Instead, you focus on the routes that reach most riders and service them better.

Many other speakers tied investments in transit or mobility to Calgary’s recent climate strategy. Some wanted to see the city match Edmonton’s recent commitment to adding 100 kilometres to their cycling infrastructure.

Calgarians are OK with keeping services intact

Coun. Sonya Sharp said she was mildly surprised that they hadn’t heard too much about reducing city taxes. What’s surprising is she’s heard it from residents directly corresponding with her office.

Sharp said it may be a case that people are just unable to get into the public hearing to have their voices heard.

She’s acknowledged citizens are talking about affordability, safe streets – police, fire, road safety.

“We have to listen to everybody that comes in, take this all in, and debrief as a council and figure out what our next steps are going to be,” she said.

Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian said it was a steady stream of Calgarians asking for more investments. It’s a proposed budget that just takes into account growth for population and inflation, with not a lot of additional strategic work, she said.

“That’s what we’re hearing from the public. They want to see investments in different things that are truly going to move the needle in a perceptible way for Calgarians,” she said.

Coun. Mian wasn’t as surprised those wanting taxes cut weren’t coming out.

“I think that people are supportive of spending when they understand where it’s going, and that they believe it’s reasonable,” she said.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek also acknowledged that most presenters were looking for various investment in services. Some of those were in the budget, others would have to be added, she said.

Mayor Gondek was hoping to streamline potential budget amendments by gathering with council members during the lunch break Tuesday.  There are members of council that want to see things added, others removed, maybe some funded with one-time cash.

“I can tell you, the one thing I wanted to do with my colleagues is show them the types of things that everyone is interested in so there aren’t any surprises,” she said.

“We all know what we’re walking into.”

There were still nine panels (and counting) remaining to begin Wednesday’s budget session.