Saskatoon council approves largest tax hike in 2 decades: Average homeowner will see an extra $108 on the 2014 tax bill

Reported by François Biber, NewsTalk 980 CJME December 5, 2013 - The average homeowner can expect to see $108 added to their 2014 tax bills after city council approved one of its largest tax hikes in recent history.

“In 20 years of budgets, I cannot recall us ever doing a tax increase of seven per cent,” Mayor Don Atchison said, after a Day 2 of budget deliberations at city hall.

Going into the two days of deliberations city councillors were faced with a proposed 7.26 per cent tax increase by the city’s administration. More than half of the increase was dedicated to roadway repairs, snow clearing, street sweeping and pothole patching. Those items alone made up 4.29 per cent categorized at a road levy.

“It’s just under 500 lane kilometres that are going to be looked after. If you add those lane kilometers that almost gets you all the way from Saskatoon to Calgary so it’s a significant amount of roads over the next three years,” Atchison said.

Instead of watching the 7.26-per-cent increase slide down closer to seven per cent as councillors went through budget items, city council may have surprised everyone by adding another important infrastructure project, sound attenuation walls to the 2014 priority list.

“This is an issue I’ve heard about since I first ran for council in 2011 and I felt it needed to be addressed,” Ward 3 Councillor Ann Iwanchuk said.

Earlier this fall the city’s administration came back with a report based on an inquiry from Iwanchuk, who asked for the status of sound wall projects in the city. What the city came back with, was a list of 23 locations where they planned on installing sound walls, adding they were about $38 million behind on funding.

“We had this program in place for a number of years and the issue hasn’t really been addressed and when you look at the $38 million list, it will take 75 years (to complete) and that’s totally unacceptable,” Iwanchuk said.

She acted quickly and within the first hour of Day 2, Iwanchuk proposed an additional 0.30 per cent tax increase for 2014, 2015 and 2016, to build up reserve funding for the program. The second part of the motion will come in 2016, when the city looks to borrow $15.4 million to build and install nine sound walls (the most needed nine) in various parts of the city.

For Ward 8 Councillor Eric Olauson, who previously said he would look at budget items on Day 2 to see where they could find some savings, found himself behind Iwanchuk’s motion, because it hit close to home for his constituents.

“It’s a quality of life issue, people can’t sit in their backyards and we exasperated the problem and it’s now going to take 75 years? That’s far too long,” Olauson said, adding “and although it pains me to do it I think it needs to get done.”

After it was cleared up with the city’s transportation department that new decibel readings would be taken in 2014 and 2015, council approved the increase, bringing the mill rate up to 7.56 per cent.

Just as they did for the 2013 budget, corporate finance director Kerry Tarasoff found an extra $210,000 in additional revenue from SaskPower  through the city’s street lighting profits, and was able to take that amount out of the budget, bringing the mill rate down to 7.43 per cent.

Unprecedented tax hike

Mayor Atchison addressed the issue about the significant tax increase coming in 2014, noting that in the past the priorities revolved around policing and affordable housing.

“In the meantime, our budget has never decreased but the cost of materials and labour (for roads) grew much quicker than what the budgets did,” he said, adding in 2003 Saskatoon’s crime rate was at its peak, and council needed to address it by bringing in more resources and officers.

Ward 2 Councillor Pat Lorje says she’ll sleep peacefully knowing city council delivered exactly what they planned to deliver to the taxpayers, similar to how Edmonton came to terms with its infrastructure deficits.

“They came to grips with road problems but now we’ve come to grips. I’m satisfied that within a few years we will have better, safer, smoother roads to drive on and I know it’s a big increase compared to 10 years ago but it’s in direct response to the needs and concerns citizens have brought forward to us,” Lorje said.

The mayor referred back to the results of the civic services survey conducted earlier this year. In that survey, a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay $15 a month for better services. That equals to $180 per year. Atchison said city council is only asking for $108.

Other items

The Meewasin Valley Authority received a 4.4 per cent funding translating to $27,500. The city already funds the MVA $689,500 each year. The University of Saskatchewan, the city and the province, combined give the MVA $2.26 million.

Councillor Darren Hill asked for $15,000 to set up a gently used recycling program in Saskatoon.

The Saskatoon Police Services budget was approved as is for the first time in three years. Usually the budget is sent back to the Board of Police Commissioners for review, but Wednesday council approved a 5.5-per-cent increase totaling $3.9 million to help with the move to the new police station and to hire more patrol and traffic officers.

The fire services budget was passed without much opposition. No new fire halls will be built in Saskatoon in 2014. The majority of the budget will cover employee salaries.

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