Public submissions took up day 1 of Calgary city council’s 2024 budget adjustments, with the property tax shift and cost of living taking centre stage.
With the prospect of a potential 7.8 per cent increase ($16 per month) to a typical single-family homeowner should $170 million in additional projects and a one per cent tax shift take place, the public was able to share their perspectives on what the city should do for next year.
Early debate on the tax shift took shape, with Calgary Chamber of Commerce CEO Deborah Yedlin stepping up as the first speaker in this year’s public submissions. Yedlin has been advocating for the city to re-balance the tax responsibility for a number of years now. They’d like the ratio to get to 2.8 to 1, down from the current projected 4.59` to 1.
“We’ve been on a precipitous downward trajectory. Since 2014, the last year Calgary had a reasonable balance between non-residential and residential taxes, the cost to businesses has climbed, while the impact to residents has stayed relatively steady,” Yedlin said.
“As the job creators, employers and in many cases, city builders, it’s unreasonable that businesses bear the burden of increased costs.”
Right now, there’s a 52 residential / 48 non-residential split in property tax responsibility. With an additional one per cent shifted from non-residential to residential (53/47), it equates to $4 in additional property tax to a homeowner. The Chamber
Some councillors quizzed speakers on how much raw property tax Calgary businesses pay in comparison with other cities. They also asked about the impact all of the increases – including the tax shift – would have on citizens’ buying power in local businesses.
Yedlin said that in a survey of business members, 90 per cent said rising property taxes have a negative impact on businesses. They said 74 per cent have lower profits, 60 per cent have raised prices and 52 per cent weren’t able to increase wages.
“This means real impacts to Calgarians, real impact to residents, real impact to employees,” she said.”
Hefty surpluses, says speaker
Jim Williams, in his address to council, said that it was surprising that the city doesn’t read its own audited financial statements when there are calls for higher taxes. Williams cited the hundreds of millions in city surpluses racked up over the years.
“I think when you look at those, you will see that the city is actually quite flush with cash; it is generating large operating surpluses each year and there really is no need for any increases,” he said.
“Here we are again, talking about the need for more taxes. I suggest it’s absurd. You’ve heard from a number of speakers today telling you the difficulties that they are having. We see record numbers of people going to the food bank, and yet administration is calling for even more tax dollars.”
Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said she understood where Williams was coming from but suggested that it was a simplistic way of looking at the city’s finances. She said the historically good fiscal position the city finds itself in is a result of good management.
“That is putting money in reserves. We know reserves collect investment income, which we then use to pay for things,” she said.
“To simply say that we would deplete our reserves in order to pay for all these things is a really simplistic way and not a long-term financial strategy.”
Strong support for 5A network
Aside from a couple of speakers advocating for Calgary businesses and the tax shift, and the odd speaker wanting city council to hold the line on property tax hikes, the bulk of speakers this year pushed for more investment in the city’s mobility and transit infrastructure.
Jon van Heyst, a Bankview resident spoke about three primary issues: affordable housing, the 5A network and transit improvements.
“We don’t own a vehicle but use almost all of Calgary’s transportation options. We walk and bike to many places, take transit to work and errands regularly use the car share program for out-of-town trips and occasionally take a ride share or shared scooter,” he said.
“We know that transit service is much less reliable in other parts of the city. Improving transit service and reliability in a growing city should be a key priority.”
Many speakers talked about framing affordability in a different way through investments in other areas like transit and mobility. Purchasing a car, and then paying for fuel and insurance was out of reach for many, thus making other transportation options a must.
“I just wanted to phone in and say raise my taxes,” said Justin Simaluk.
“Calgary is a growing city and we saw today that in order for us to be competitive nationally, we need to be investing in our city. We’ve had decades of austerity budgets and they’re catching up with us. The mentality is kick the can down – the road has run out of kicks.”
Mayor Jyoti Gondek said she wasn’t surprised by the different groups that turned out and she felt all sides were represented in the debate.
“There’s a lot of people in the middle that have said, ‘you know, I’m neither for nor against, but I really hope you take certain investments seriously,’” she said.
The mayor said public submissions matter because all of council should be amenable to persuasion. She’s seen minds changed in past budget debates.
“That’s why public submissions matter so much. You might hear something that that sways your opinion, one way or the other,” she said.
“You can’t go into these things with your mind made up. You should absolutely go in fully prepared, having read everything and having formed some opinions and ideas and having a perspective, but you should be open to listening to what the public has to say.”
Questions of admin and then debate
While the mayor said councillors should be amenable to persuasion, there are still sides forming on having a full hike to cover the costs of a growing city… and not.
Ward 5 Coun. Raj Dhaliwal said he prefers to look at the budget increase as an investment. He believes Calgarians will see a positive return on that investment.
“For last many years, we have seen cuts and cuts and cuts and in the budget and it has led to our infrastructure getting older, lifecycle maintenance not living up to the standards,” he said.
“I’ve heard from residents in Ward 5 that they want to see improvement in services, snow and ice removal, public safety, transit and all that.”
Others, like Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp, believe that city council – not admin – has a spending issue. She said that admin only brings forward recommendations. It’s city council that has the final say.
“The city could budget probably more fiscally responsible,” Sharp told media outside chambers on Monday.
“This has come out like a shopping list of council-directed priorities and we’ve also heard from Calgarians they want us to cut taxes as well, because there’s an affordability crisis out there.”
Public safety has been top of mind for Calgarians, as has housing affordability, Sharp said. She also wasn’t sure where she landed on the tax shift.
“We have to be very mindful that the residents are also the consumers and Calgarians are seeing the pressures of inflation and the cost of living no matter what your income is at this point, she said.
Tuesday will be a day of councillor questions to the different city business units as they drill down into some of the departmental spending. After that, councillors will wind their way through amendments and admin recommendations to come up with a 2024 budget.