Councillors favour tax hike for roads

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix August 10, 2013 - As Saskatoon's roads worsen year after year, some city councillors are betting that fewer potholes make for better politics than lower taxes.

"If we need to increase taxes to do it, let's do it," said Coun. Eric Olauson.

Olauson's comments come on the heels of a new proposal from the city administration to set up a dedicated road levy that would amount to a 2.9 per cent tax hike per year for the next

three years, or a phasedin $170 road base tax to deal with the city's chronically underfunded road network.

The increase would close the $19.8 million funding gap needed to start improving the condition of city roads.

Even though the 2014 budget won't be released until December, councillors are already staring down what could be a larger than normal tax hike if the road levy is passed.

Olauson - who is seen as one of the fiscal conservatives on council - said he would like the increase to happen, but would want the budget trimmed in other places. He said he will not support any new unnecessary capital projects and "wants" at budget time. "We need to fix our infrastructure, our roads, our city. Those are needs. Once we deal with those, we can deal with things we want," Olauson said.

Last year's city budget factored in the municipal inflation rate at around three per cent. Council also approved a two per cent hike to deal with growth.

If those numbers remain relatively unchanged and the road levy is factored in, the city could be facing a tax increase of around eight per cent before the budget season - and the usual requests from various departments for increases that go along with it - even begins.

"Those who tell you they are going to lower taxes or keep them the same are either crazy or they are lying to you," Coun. Zach Jeffries said.

Coun. Darren Hill said he supports the hike in principle, but he would like the city administration to investigate ways to extend the life of roads and build better ones in the first place.

In the early 1990s, the city switched from a "worst-first" strategy of repairing roads to a program of preventative maintenance, applying treatments to all roads on a fixed schedule. The condition of roads improved between 1990 and 2003 until city funding fell behind the escalating costs of maintenance, the report says.

Since 2003, funding for road maintenance has increased by roughly two per cent per year, far below the cost of treating and fixing the roads, which has jumped between eight and 15 per cent annually.

Even with last year's dedicated road levy of 1.5 per cent, it would take another decade to reach the funding base of $73 million needed to start improving the road system. "You can nickel and dime the problem to death and get nowhere, or you can be bold," Coun. Pat Lorje said.

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