Calgary

Trio of councillors want to protect essential services while budget cutting

Three fiscally conservative city councillors say they have no appetite for any property tax increases in Calgary next year.

Magliocca, Farkas and Chu aim to reduce taxes by spending less at city hall

From left: Councillors Joe Magliocca, Jeromy Farkas and Sean Chu are putting forward a motion for $50 million in additional spending cuts at city hall. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Three fiscally conservative city councillors say they have no appetite for any property tax increases in Calgary next year.

As city council prepares for its annual budget debate next week, councillors Sean Chu, Jeromy Farkas and Joe Magliocca are putting forward a motion for $50 million in additional spending cuts at city hall.

That would be on top of tens of millions of dollars in reductions that council will weigh during the budget debate.

A tax freeze would result in the reduction of 236 city jobs, an $8.45 million cut in the police budget, deferring a new fire hall, less money for civic partners like the zoo and Heritage Park, as well as delays in new transit service.

The three councillors say they want to protect essential services like police, fire and transportation.

Instead, they want to cut five per cent of spending in all other city departments to head off any tax increase for 2020.

More savings

Magliocca said he and his colleagues have pored through the budget and believe that after years of spending reductions at city hall, more savings can be found.

"From cemeteries all the way to parks to staplers and paper clips, all the way through all the departments," said Magliocca.

"We found where we can reduce five per cent in the communications, from planning and so on, et cetera, et cetera."

When asked by reporters about what could be specifically cut, he said city council shouldn't micromanage.

"It's administration's job and the bureaucrats to figure that out."

Farkas said steps have to be taken to halt a tax increase next year.

"Obviously, council's pushed against the wall," said Farkas.

Pressure is on

There's extra pressure on council during this budget debate. Millions of dollars in provincial budget changes have affected the city's spending plan.

As well, the province increased its requisition of education property taxes.

Council does not have any cash on hand for a fourth straight year of rebates to help business property owners cope with a shift of the tax burden from downtown to areas outside the core. 

Instead, council is weighing the idea of shifting some of the non-residential tax burden to homeowners in order to avert major tax hikes for suburban business properties.

Add it all up and it means that even if council approves a tax freeze for 2020 and cuts spending, homeowners could end up paying higher taxes.

That's why some council members are looking for savings beyond what administration is proposing.
 
"We have to take a look at implementing reductions. Even in a zero per cent scenario, if we go ahead with the tax shift, the typical homeowner is looking at at least a six or seven per cent tax increase."

In past years, there have been budget week proposals for across the board cuts and they have been shot down because of the potential adverse effect to city services for little impact to tax bills.

Not everyone likes idea

The reaction to this latest call for cuts is not being welcomed by other members of council.

"This is pure political gamesmanship and is a complete financial fairy tale," said Coun. Evan Woolley.

He points out that police, fire and transportation make up about three quarters of the city's entire budget. 

So he said to go looking for big savings in other remaining departments will not likely find much success. 

"Cutting five per cent out of 25 per cent [of the budget] is very incremental and will not help us solve the problem, both of our non-residential to residential tax shift or any other."  

Coun. Evan Woolley called changes proposed by councillors Sean Chu, Jeromy Farkas and Joe Magliocca "pure political gamesmanship." (Mike Symington/CBC)

He predicts going ahead with this proposal would result in deep service cuts in the affected departments including water services, waste and recycling, parks and snow clearing.

"If they (Calgarians) don't think that those things are important, then they should reach out and support this," said Woolley. 

"But my constituents have told me that these things are very, very important to them."

Keating calls it 'ludicrous'

Coun. Shane Keating summarizes his colleagues' proposal as unrealistic.

"It's just ludicrous. That's all I can say," said Keating.

"I would say in many cases, you're talking about across the board slashing of many services without evaluation, without determination of these are the things that the residents want to see and not see."

Keating also accused Farkas of a double standard because he wants to cancel the proposed closure of the Inglewood pool for cost-cutting reasons.

"We have some of those same councillors who are proposing this [fighting] to keep a pool that's losing money constantly open," said Keating.

He likened it to the councillors wanting city spending to continue where they want, but taking a hands-off attitude when it comes to things they don't care about.

Council's budget debate will get underway next Monday with a public hearing on the proposed adjustments to the second year of the city's four year spending plan.

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