Tax hike 'direct response to the needs of our citizens:' Increase tops 7 per cent

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix Decemeber 5, 2013 - Saskatoon city council has approved the city's largest municipal property tax increase in 25 years.

Councillors voted in favour of a tax increase of 7.43 per cent for 2014, thanks to hefty new spending on roads, snow clearing and street sweeping. It's by far the largest increase in Mayor Don Atchison's ten-year term as mayor.

"I think overall council was very reflective of what citizens of Saskatoon wanted," Atchison told reporters after budget deliberations finished Wednesday night.

City councillors failed to cut a single item from the proposed budget during two days of budget deliberations.

As a result, the average annual residential property tax bill in Saskatoon will go up by $108 per year. The majority of the hike is a direct result of investment in road maintenance. Of the 7.43 per cent hike, a full 4.29 per cent is dedicated to roads, meaning the city will spend a total of $36.6 million on road repairs in 2014. The influx of new spending - $15.8 million more - comes after more than a decade of city budgets that could not keep up with the cost of road maintenance and repair.

Atchison, who was first elected in 2003 after promising to hold the line on taxes, said the massive hike was justified because people want to see more investment in roads, street sweeping and snow removal. "I will continue to talk about using and investing tax dollars wisely," Atchison said.

The end result of two days of debate was a budget that came in higher than city officials originally anticipated. Council approved big-ticket items like the police and fire budgets without any changes. The city's police budget makes up a third of the proposed hike. Police received a 5.5 per cent increase, or an additional $3.9 million.

Instead of hacking and trimming away at budget items in an effort to soften the blow, council voted on a plan to build new sound walls, which added around $500,000 to the budget. They added $15,000 for a so-called "New 2 U" program to encourage used item recycling, and another $27,000 in funding for the Meewasin Valley Authority.

"It's a hard job, but someone had to do it," Coun. Pat Lorje said after the meeting. "It is a bigger increase than what we have been doing for the past four or five years, but it's in direct response to the needs of our citizens."

While the road spending passed with unanimous consent among all city councillors and a larger than usual tax hike was almost inevitable from the beginning, a number of councillors expressed hesitation about adding sound wall funding.

"I've heard loud and clear from my constituency that roads are a priority, and so is the north commuter parkway bridge - not sound walls," Coun. Zach Jeffries said during the debate.

The city plans to use the $500,000 to leverage the more than $15 million it needs to start building new sound walls in 2016. The sound wall item added 0.3 per cent to the tax hike, but Coun. Ann Iwanchuk said the move was well worth the cost.

"If we don't do something today, this list will take 20 years for these sound walls to be built, and I find that completely unacceptable ... Those residents who are backing these particular roadways, they can't even sit in their backyards," she told council.

In the end, city staff, not city councillors, were the ones who softened the hike.

They found more than $200,000 in electrical cost savings from the city-owned utility, Saskatoon Light and Power. That brought the tax hike to 7.43 per cent.

Saskatoon tax hikes through the years

2004 - 3.24% 2005 - 3.94% 2006 - 1.86% 2007 - 4.76%

2008 - 5.44% 2009 - 2.87% 2010 - 3.86%

2011 - 3.99% 2012 - 4% 2013 - 4.99%

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