Calgary council passes 4-year budget, approves 3.45% property tax hike for 2019

Councillors George Chahal, Diane Colley-Urquhart, Jeromy Farkas and Peter Demong all opposed the motion to pass the budget. Coun. Ray Jones was absent.

Councillors debated libraries, taxes and capital funds for small projects

Calgary city council ironed out the details of its four-year budget on Friday after a week of debate. (CBC)

After a day of non-stop deliberations and motions, Calgary city council passed its four-year budget in a vote of nine for and five against.

Councillors George Chahal, Diane Colley-Urquhart, Jeromy Farkas and Peter Demong all opposed the motion to pass the budget. Coun. Ray Jones was absent, tweeting that he was resting on doctor's orders after a hospital trip on Thursday.

Demong told council he could not support the budget until the city gets a handle on what programs and services it should be doing and not doing.

"I will be looking very closely in the new year, when we start looking at the 61 service lines to determine what we're supposed to be actually focusing ourselves on," Demong said.

"But until we can actually get a handle on what things we should be doing, and what things we should be allowing the other levels of government to be focusing on, I have a problem going forward agreeing with this."

Property tax hike

In the final vote of the day, councillors approved a 3.45 per cent property tax hike for 2019. 

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the property tax hike amounts to about five dollars per month for the average Calgary household, but money will mean the city can hire new bus drivers, new police officers, and can keep the streets safe and clean.

"We look at the services that are being delivered and what people are demanding of us, and for five dollars a month I think that people are getting extraordinary service," Nenshi said.

"Which is, you know much, less than the average house pays on cell phones. for example."

$43M in capital funding

Friday was the final day of debate to iron out the details of the proposed four-year budget presented earlier this month. The meeting kicked off shortly after 9:30 a.m. MT.

On Friday afternoon, Nenshi presented what he called an omnibus motion involving capital funding for a variety of projects from new bike lanes and train cars, to roof fixes and arena upgrades.

His proposal to spend $43 million, which is unallocated capital spending spread over four years. The motion passed in a vote of eight to six.

The fund will pay for small projects, like for community associations to fix their roofs, to upgrade existing parks and invest in urban forestry, and to buy three LRT cars to bump up an existing order to get a volume discount.

"This has been very surgical in terms of thinking about things that are relatively small but would have a big impact on people's quality of life in this city," Nenshi told reporters.

Specifically, Nenshi's request includes:

  • $6 million for parks projects.
  • $6.5 million for community association and social recreation group support.
  • $5.5 million for streets and pathways, like the Barley Belt's multi-user pathway.
  • $17.5 million to buy three new train cars for the LRT, to bump up an existing order to 15 and get a discount.
  • $7.5 million for urban forestry.
  • Other funding for life-cycle maintenance of recreational facilities.

Tax rate debate

As councillors entered the afternoon session, Coun. George Chahal said he would push for administration to find further efficiencies to reduce the residential and non-residential tax rate.

"I got a haircut because I think we need to do cuts. We have a huge structural problem here at the city and we need to remedy that," Chahal said.

"I mean, we can't kick the can down the road like we have in previous years. Business owners are hurting, families are hurting, and we need to trim the budget down to ensure that we cannot have a huge tax increase."

Library to see boost

In the morning session, council partially reversed its previously agreed reduction to the budget for Calgary Public Libraries, which said less funding could mean reducing hours. 

Instead, council voted eight to five to provide the library with an additional $1.4 million spread over the next four years for service increases.

Originally, the budget proposed $2.8 million increase over four years but council declined that recommendation and then refused to reconsider. Instead, council passed the motion to allow half of the requested increase, resulting in a boost of $1.4 million over four years.

Library CEO Bill Ptacek and board chair Avnish Mehta were on hand to answer questions during the debate. They said investments in the library have worked, with more than 700,000 people now holding library cards.

Ptacek said a major expense includes spending more than $1 million on security, a cost that continues to rise.

He said under this budget, Forest Lawn and Bowness library branches will get security guards because of the rising number of issues staff are seeing, especially around the meth and opioid crisis.

Security staff administer the live-saving naloxone, otherwise Ptacek said people will die in or near libraries across Calgary.

"It's not about policing away the problem. It's some way or another finding the solutions," Ptacek said.

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart asked if the library was using security and naloxone to secure more money. She also argued the library could look at partnerships with the province to take this on, for example, by adding mental health services to library branches.

"I think we've been very generous to the library system in this city," she said.

Savings to fund arts, heritage, economic groups

Council also voted eight to six to pull $18 million over four years from corporate costs and direct it to civic partners by adding it to yearly base budgets.

The change would amount to an annual cut of 0.25 per cent to corporate budget, and would not affect the proposed property tax increase, Nenshi said.

That money will be redirected to Calgary Economic Development, which was facing a budget reduction, along with Calgary Arts Development, Heritage Park, Parks Foundation Calgary and a handful of other groups.

An executive for Heritage Park, which has struggled financially, spoke in favour of more funding for the non-profit.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra motioned to hike inner-city taxes by 0.5 per cent to pay for the main street make-over program — but his proposal failed 10 to four.

With files from Scott Dippel


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