Base tax floated to repair roads

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix August 13, 2013 - The city will ask for an extra $14 million from taxpayers by 2016 to fix a crumbling road network. But the question of who will pay for what is still up for debate.

At a Monday committee meeting, city councillors agreed the extra funding is necessary, but councillors are divided about whether taxpayers should each pay the same flat fee of $170 per year, or face a three per cent property tax hike, which would vary depending on the value of one's home, ranging from $40 per year to $750.

"What I heard overwhelmingly was that citizens were willing to pay $170, not a three per cent increase (on their tax bill)," Mayor Don Atchison told council's executive committee Monday.

The results of a civic survey showed six out of 10 respondents would be willing to pay an extra $15 per month in taxes earmarked specifically for road repairs, Atchison said.

City officials have advanced an aggressive plan to deal with Saskatoon's deteriorating roads, which because of chronic lack of funding are getting worse year after year.

One of the options before council is to impose a 2.9 per cent dedicated property tax hike every year for the next three years.

The other option is that every property owner in the city pay a "base tax" or levy of $170 per year, regardless of the value of their home.

Atchison evaded questions about whether he supports a base tax or a percentage tax increase, but did say he is committed to getting the needed money in place over the next three years.

"I am open to and receptive to a plan that gets our roads fixed," Atchison said when asked which option he prefers.

Under the percentage model, the majority of homeowners would pay around $140 per year toward the road tax. Owners of properties valued at $1.9 million would be pay an extra $750 a year, while those with homes worth less than $100,000 would pay an additional $40 or less.

"Everyone drives the roads, everyone uses the roads. I think (the base tax) is fair," Coun. Tiffany Paulsen said.

But the idea of charging lower-income homeowners the same as people who can afford to live in expensive homes didn't sit well with other councillors.

"I absolutely do not support a move to a base tax model," Coun. Charlie Clark said. "I think it's a dangerous precedent to set."

The city does not charge a flat base tax for any other service it provides. When tax hikes are levied, they are always done on a percentage basis, and charging a base tax would be a significant policy shift for the city, several councillors said.

"I see the move to a base tax as a piecemeal approach ... I'm not willing to make policy based on the thoughts of 1,100 residents who filled out a civic survey," Coun. Zach Jeffries said.

Aside from the $13.8 million in road funding, taxpayers will also pay an additional $2.15 million in taxes that will go straight towards improved street sweeping, snow removal and pothole fixing.

With the new money, city workers will do more street sweeping and there will be a spring blitz covering all the city's major roadways as soon as the snow melts, the committee heard.

The money will also allow for two city-wide snow clearing efforts, and more people will be hired to deal with the city's pothole problem.

While councillors all agreed that the extra cash for roads, snow removal, street sweeping and pothole fixing is needed, the debate about how taxpayers will be charged will have to wait until December's budget deliberations.

At that time, council will decide whether to charge a base tax or a percentage increase on property taxes.

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