Calgary city budget debate: 3 things you need to know

Normally council sets aside a week as the worst case scenario to approve a three-year budget. This year it's a four-year plan so council is doubling down and setting aside two weeks to get the job done.

Big issue is 4.7% property tax hike proposed for each of the next 4 years

Calgary's city council will begin two weeks of budget debates on Monday. (CBC)

The annual city budget debate is always a highlight at city hall.

The mayor likes to repeatedly say that no other level of government allows citizens to watch (if they wanted to watch) their elected officials pour through a mega-sized budget document like this line by line and budget item by budget item.

It all leads to a final vote.

One thing you can sense by watching them go at it day after day is that at some point they do get tired of it and, sometimes, tired of each other. Too much time together in a small space can be a strain for any relationship!

Normally council sets aside a week as the worst case scenario to approve a three-year budget. This year it's a four-year plan so council is doubling down and setting aside two weeks to get the job done.

This is going to cost you

The big headline is this — a 4.7 per cent property tax hike in each of the next four years.

Some say that's only $75 a year more tax for the average-priced house, but the reality if this budget passes is that you'll pay much more. 

First, your 2014 property tax bill came with a $100 credit for that average-priced house. This credit came courtesy of a one-time credit of $52 million.

That credit won't be on your 2015 tax bill, so your $75 tax increase just became a $175 jump in property taxes. Now about your utility bill: it's approximately $100 more a year under this budget.

So now, average homeowner, you're looking at $275 more in 2015 if this budget is approved. Transit fares will go up 15 cents per ride for adults or increase by about $36 a year if you buy a monthly pass each and every month.

Dive deep in the budget and you learn that virtually every city facility (arenas, pools, golf courses, etc.) and service (inspections, business licenses, etc.) will be charging more in 2015.

The picture for each of the other years is the same: all taxes, rates and fees will be higher. Significantly.

But look what you get! 

Some projects have been in the works and others are actually new: three new interchanges, four-car LRT trains, a new central library10 more police officers, two new city parkades downtown and two creaky inner-city bridges (zoo and Inglewood) will be replaced.

There will also be four new recreation centres, a green cart program for your compost, new fire stations and 500 new full-time equivalent jobs at the City of Calgary to meet the needs of a growing population.

So what will they tinker with? 

This budget calls for a reduction in the projected growth of transit service hours. Several members of council have already signalled they don't like that.

In a fast-growing city trying to wean people from defaulting to their cars and pick-up trucks, the transit option is still in need of some care and attention. Look for a number of councillors to push for more transit hours. 

Similarly, memories remain fresh of last winter's heavy snowfall that left people trapped in their communities and an emergency clean-up plan that left some homeowners waiting weeks for a plow to show up. Some will debate a change to the current snow and ice control plan. 

Remember, any additions boost your tax hike even further if there are no corresponding cuts in spending. While some fiscal hawks on council vow to look for cuts, there's no word yet on what councillors want to do away with.

What could go wrong?

The key assumption in this four-year taxing and spending plan is that Calgary is forecast to grow by 25,000 people a year for the next four years. Last year, it grew by 38,000 people.

If Calgary's population continues to grow by more than 25,000 a year, all other assumptions in this budget need to be redrawn. As a good number of Calgary council members have said over the years, when people move to Calgary they don't bring police officers, firefighters, interchanges and water lines with them. 

All Calgarians shoulder that load. The costs of growth only continue to rise.

CBC city hall reporter Scott Dippel was in council chambers tweeting the budget developments. Follow along in the box below:


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