Tax hike proposed for road repair

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix August 9, 2013 - The road to fewer potholes is paved with tax increases. City officials are proposing a 2.9 per cent dedicated annual tax increase for the next three years to improve the crumbling streets.

"Our residents are saying, 'We want improvements and we want them quickly,'" city manager Murray Totland told reporters at a news conference Thursday.

The city's roads are getting worse every year due to an annual $20 million budget shortfall, according to a new report on its way to city council.

Civic administrators recommend closing that funding gap over the next three years by implementing a tax hike that would go directly toward improving roadways. The hike would roughly translate into an extra $170 per year on an average household's property tax bill.

Mayor Don Atchison has watched funding levels for roads fall short for nearly a decade. He said he supports the tax hike if it means improving the quality of Saskatoon's streets.

"(People) want their roads fixed and they are willing to pay for it. The citizens of Saskatoon understand that it can't be done for free," Atchison said Thursday.

The plan comes on the heels of an annual civic survey that identified road conditions as the most important issue facing the city. According to the survey results, nearly 60 per cent of Saskatoon residents would be willing to pay an additional $15 per month to speed up road repairs.

The new approach would achieve the city's goal of investing $73 million annually in roads more quickly than previous iterations of the road improvement strategy. A prior plan, approved last December, implemented a 1.25 per cent dedicated tax hike for roads in 2013. At that rate, the target funding level would not be met for 10 years.

The plan, which goes before council's executive committee next week, also calls for a new approach to dealing with neighbourhood roads. Right now, all the city's roads - including major streets and local roads - are assessed and funded under the same program. The new approach would split the money between major roads and local roadway networks.

Atchison said he would like city administration to release a list of the worst roads in Saskatoon so the process of selecting which roads are fixed first is transparent. He even suggested city councillors could play a role in selecting which roads are resurfaced and which are not.

The plan hinges on council's support. During the last election in 2012, taxes were a key issue, but whether councillors are willing to swallow a 2.9 per cent tax hike four months ahead of budget time is an open question.

The city also plans to improve street sweeping by increasing the budget for that item by more than $600,000. Totland said civic staff were not happy that street sweeping was done so late this year. Plans to spend $1 million more fixing potholes and an additional $500,000 on snow removal are also in the works. Not all the money required to implement the plan would come from taxes. City officials are proposing taking $2 million per year from water utilities to put toward roads.

The plan has to be approved by city council before it can be implemented in 2014.

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