Tax hike, cutbacks on tap as Calgary's 2018 budget debate kicks off

Calgary city council is facing some tough decisions as it starts debating final changes to the 2018 budget on Monday.

Council will discuss changes that could charge Calgary homeowners more to get less

Calgary city council will debate how to balance the books starting on Monday. (CBC)

They're going to try to do it all and risk not pleasing anyone. 

Members of Calgary city council started to debate adjustments to the 2018 budget Monday morning.

Administration has found savings and enough cutbacks to patch over a $170 million hole in the operating budget created by declining revenues. 

It means 156 city jobs will be eliminated. Savings are expected at the bargaining table with its unions.  

Still, $33 million in service cuts are being proposed and there's still a 2.9 per cent hike in property taxes on the table.

That increase could jump by another 0.8 per cent if council backs a proposal to boost the police budget by $20.8 million in order to halt service reductions and proceed with body-worn cameras for frontline officers.

Monday's meeting includes a provision for Calgarians to step forward and take up to five minutes to tell council what they think of the changes.

Little will to raise taxes

As Calgary emerges from a bruising economic downturn, there's little appetite on council for a tax hike for homeowners after last year's freeze.

Newly elected Coun. Jyoti Gondek said a tax hike might be fine for people who can afford it, but not for many other Calgarians.

"For the people that are truly in dire straits right now, that's going to be difficult to take," she said.

"I want to look at the whole package. I want to hear the presentations from administration to see what we can do about that." 

Gondek said she's interested in a tax freeze but she wants to see what would have to but cut to achieve that.

The budget adjustments include cutting 46,800 hours of transit service on 27 routes, just as higher transit fares arrive for 2018.

The price of an adult monthly transit pass will go up by two dollars on January 1st, meaning it will cost $103. The adult cash fare goes up a nickel to $3.30.

While user fees at city recreation facilities are all going up in the new year, the parks department wants to cut public skating on the lagoon at Prince's Island Park and reduce maintenance on its flower program. 

Bylaw services warns of longer waits at the animal services centre.

The Calgary fire department wants to either renegotiate its contract with the Calgary Airport Authority or have YYC staff its own fire hall. 

In budget documents, it even warns of longer response times to the Stampede grounds during the 11 days of Stampede. 

Deeper cuts?

Coun. Sean Chu plans to push for more cuts.

He wants to see a property tax freeze or even a cut in property taxes next year.

To save money, Chu plans to bring forward a proposal to cut green cart pick-ups to once every two weeks rather than weekly.

While several council members like Gondek and Jeromy Farkas have spoken of the need to boost the police budget as requested, Chu, a former police officer, says he thinks there are still places to cut at CPS — starting at the top. 

"I'm not making any friends in the department," said Chu. "But we have to lead by example."

He said there used to be just a police chief and a deputy chief at the top. Now there are several deputy chiefs and "a whole bunch of superintendents."

City council is stepping up.

The adjustments include a $155,000 reduction in the councillors' offices as well as a $33,000 cut in the mayor's office budget.

Changes are to be expected

Mayor Naheed Nenshi wasn't available last week to comment on the upcoming budget debate.

But when the adjustments were unveiled earlier this month, he said he expected some changes would come forward during the debate on the proposed service cuts.

"Watch this space. There may well be things in that $33 million that council, or me, will find unacceptable," said Nenshi. 

Reducing the proposed tax hike is theoretically possible.

Last year, council dipped into its savings fund to take a 1.5 per cent tax hike down to zero.  

This year, that 1.5 per cent tax increase is back, but council could cut this year's hike by finding cash for another rebate. 

Every one per cent increase in the municipal property tax rate equals an annual increase of $18 for the owner of a median assessed house of $460,000.

The provincial government will set the education portion of the property tax bill in the spring.

Five days have been set aside for discussing the budget adjustments, but one member of city council will be conspicuously absent for the week's deliberations.

Calgary Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart caught many observers by surprise by showing up at city council Monday for the first day of budget deliberations. 

Colley-Urquhart, who represents Ward 13 in the city's southwest, had told her council colleagues earlier this month that she would miss the financial discussions because she would be away on a personal trip, a cruise in Antarctica.

She had recently drawn fire from some of her constituents, fellow council members and others for saying she'd miss the key budget talks after missing other council meetings in recent weeks — including a vote on the city's Olympic Games bid and a vote on the southwest bus rapid transit.

About the Author

Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has been at CBC News for more than two decades across four provinces. His roles have included legislative reporter, news reader, assignment editor and national reporter. When not at Calgary's City Hall, it's still all politics, all the time.