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Calgary budget – Day 3: Public hearing wrap, and onto questions of city administration

Calgary city council migrated to questions of administration after tying up budget public submissions late Wednesday afternoon.

The third day of the 2023-2026 budget saw the wrap up of the public hearing portion after city council listened to 128 members of the public over the course of two days. The theme deviated little from the prior day, with transit / mobility and climate dominating the conversation.

City council is trying to keep the hit to a typical Calgary property tax payer to around $10 per month – reflecting a budget growth that acknowledges population and inflation increases.

There were some who brought forth concerns about the tax increase, saying that while the amount was small, it’s one of many increases.

Calgary resident Doug Sewell said much of what he’d heard thus far during the budget presentation was related to budget asks. He said many of them are for worthy needs.

“I’d like council to keep front of mind that the vast majority of residential property tax payers – and by extension renters – are suffering a significant financial right now,” he said.

Sewell said that with inflation and lack of wage increase it’s resulted in a 10 per cent reduction in his family’s spending power.

“The argument has been made that these proposed property tax and other increases are only a few dollars a month for a median-priced home,” he said.

“I would argue that as true as that may be, it’s also a few dollars a month for phones, internet and other small fees.”

After Tuesday’s public hearing session, Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp also said she heard from residents about affordability issues.

“Affordability is not just being able to afford $10 a month. It’s also the compound effect of every other cost to a homeowner and citizen,” she said.

 Sharp reiterated her desire to find different pockets of money the city has in order to lessen the impact of property tax hikes, or fund certain budget requests.

Not funding current priorities

The theme of many speakers during the public hearing revolved around the city having policies and strategic goals, but not funding them. Speakers pointed to inaction on climate and on transit or mobility related issues.

David Barrett called it a disconnect. He said there’s a climate declaration with no funding. There’s a commitment to safe and active routes to school, to neighbourhood streets and to community mobility, yet not improvement in funding.

“There are programs that individuals around this horseshoe have identified as important priorities that are being left to wither away, though we increase the cost of transit passes, subsidize on street parking and spend millions on the addition of new infrastructure to serve an increasingly sprawled out city,” Barrett said.

Peter Oliver with the Beltline Neighbourhoods Association said with cuts to cycling funding and increases to transit it’s making it less desirable to get people out of their cars.

“This budget really feels to us like an open act of defiance against the city’s own policies,” he said.

Oliver joked that city council might want to consider a small line item in the budget to cover early retirement for some senior management in administration.

“I’ve worked with some incredibly motivated and visionary people at the city who I think could fill those shoes and believe in this vision the city has set forth,” he said.

Budget by Thursday?

The late part of Wednesday meant the beginning of questions to administration. This allows councillors to drill down into different city business units.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is that the questions for clarification are setting people up to bring amendments,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s session.

The mayor said the public would get a few hints of potential amendments by the direction of questions from some councillors.

Without jinxing the process, the mayor said there’s hope a new four-year budget could be hammered out by Thursday. They got through two of eight department questions before recessing Wednesday.

After that concludes, they’ll get into the amendments that will eventually shape the final budget document. These could include using reserve cash to fund budget asks or cutting some areas to fund others. It’s possible the proposed property tax hit of $10 a month could change – up or down.

The discussion may also include a shift of the current tax distribution of 52 per cent residential and 48 non-residential, to 53/47.

“We will do our best. We’re trying to be incredibly disciplined and ask some pretty sharp questions here so that we can get to a point of debate and deliberation that allows us to get to a resolution quickly,” Mayor Gondek said.

“But it is a four-year budget. It is not something we should be trying to rip through.”

Council reconvenes at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.