Saskatoon city council passed its 2016 budget on Tuesday.
After a marathon session on Monday, councillors were mainly left to discuss a handful of items that would require raising the mill rate.
But first, they found themselves in the enviable position of trying to figure out what to do with an extra $1.25 million.
The cash came from growth in property tax assessment revenue which hadn’t been anticipated for the 2016 budget year. As such, it wasn’t part of city administration’s original budget proposal, which called for a 3.95 per cent mill rate increase.
The extra assessment cash came mainly from property taxes on new hotels.
Administration had recommended pushing that money forward to the 2017 budget, in order to offset various commitments like the dedicated road levy and payments on a project to build new sound attenuation walls.
Council voted instead to apply the money to lowering this year’s tax increase.
The move allowed them to pass several additional spending items, while still keeping the overall increase under four per cent. Ultimately, the final number came in at a 3.96 per cent tax hike, equivalent to about $64.70 in extra tax for the owner of an average $325,000 home.
The biggest item added to the budget was a 0.55 per cent increase earmarked for improving snow and ice removal on city streets.
The proposal began on Monday night with a motion from Ward 3 councillor Ann Iwanchuk for a 0.86 increase each year from 2016 t o 2020 to build up a fund that could eventually cover one-time snow removal city wide in winters with heavy snowfall.
On Tuesday, Iwanchuk opened debate by walking the proposal back to 0.55 per cent. Over the long term, the incremental increases could potentially mean a city wide snow removal program several years down the line.
In the meantime, council will use the money to find immediate improvements where they can. This year’s 0.55 increase works out to about $1 million. Council ordered administration to come up with a report in January outlining options for how it might best be spent.
Councillor Tiffany Paulsen suggested some options might be increased snow removal on major arterial roads running through neighbourhoods, and/or lowering the threshold for when snow piled up in front of schools gets trucked away. Currently, city policy is to remove windrows in front of schools when they reach a height of 75 inches.
Councillor Randy Donauer spoke in favour of the move. He said he was on board provided it was clear that there was no guarantee of a citywide snow removal program, and that the future increases would be voted on, and if passed, could be spent on snow and ice as the council of the day saw fit rather than banked. He said he was backing the motion because he felt his constituents want better snow removal, and were willing to see council invest to that end.
Councillor Eric Olausen had reservations about the move, and ultimately voted against it. He explained that he wasn’t comfortable going down the path towards a snow removal program when it could mean as much as $90 million for new snow dumps at some point. He said he was also nervous because, with the 0.55 per cent increase planned for 2017, the city’s total commitments would mean a roughly 4 per cent tax hike right out of the gate for that year, before accounting for things like payroll growth or fluctuations in fuel budgets.
Other extra items approved by council:
- $44,000 to hire a customer service co-ordinator for the Community Standards branch, which handles bylaw enforcement.
- $65,000 to fund various initiatives around improving the lot of the city’s aboriginal population, based on calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
- $50,000 in extra funding for Tourism Saskatoon to offset cuts from the provincial government.
- $44,000 to extend daytime hours at city paddling pools.
- $12,000 to create a program similar to the city’s ‘Snow Angel’ promotion aimed at getting people to shovel walks for neighbours who have trouble doing it themselves. The new program would try and do the same to get people to lend a hand moving people’s garbage bins out on collection days.