Saskatoon property tax increasing by 2.83 per cent in 2021

From dealing with a multi-year budget cycle, to budgeting during a pandemic, to the first Zoom-only budget deliberations, the process for Budget 2021 was full of firsts.

Current property tax more than 1 per cent decrease from planned 3.87 per cent

Saskatoon's Council Chambers were empty over the last two days as budget deliberations for 2021 took place over a virtual Zoom call. However, despite the difference in process, the city passed budget 2021 with a property tax increase of 2.83 per cent. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

From dealing with a multi-year budget cycle, to budgeting during a pandemic, to the first Zoom-only budget deliberations, the budget process for 2021 was full of firsts.

Despite the historic differences in the process, it went ahead as planned and now residents in Saskatoon are set to see their property taxes increase, but not at the level they had initially anticipated.

Property taxes in Saskatoon were initially set to increase by 3.87 per cent in 2021, but that figure dropped after two days of budget deliberation at Saskatoon's City Council to 2.83 per cent.

The City of Saskatoon's operating budget was finalized at $915.6 million, with the city's capital budget pegged at $284.6M for a total budget of $1.2 billion. 

The 2021 property tax increase, set last year due to the city's multi-year budget approach, was adjusted during budget deliberations. One of the biggest changes was spurred by Ward 4 Coun. Troy Davies who introduced a motion that would see more than $2.5 million pulled from reserves to reduce property taxes by 1 per cent.

The motion passed with a 7-3 vote from councillors during budget deliberations, with Mayor Charlie Clark also putting his support behind the motion.

Reserves built by residents: Davies 

Davies said while he understands the reduction in property taxes could put the city at the risk of a budget shortfall moving forward, he said it's important to ensure people have the support they need, noting the savings will be a "huge deal" for many residents in his ward.

Ward 4 Councillor Troy Davies was behind one of the biggest changes in budget 2021, calling for more than $2.5 million to be pulled from city reserves to reduce the city's property tax increase by 1 per cent. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

"These reserves, that we continue to talk about all day today, are great, but they were built on the backs of the residents who live in our wards," he said, pointing to residents in his Ward who have been paying taxes for 50 years to help build the city. "Times are tough and today they're calling in a favour and I'm here to support that favour of that one per cent ask." 

Some city councillors like Ward 5 Coun. Randy Donauer and Ward 9 Coun. Bev Dubois were in favour of the motion, saying a global pandemic is a suitable reason to access the city's reserves as both the Saskatchewan and global economy have been turned upside down by the pandemic. 

"If that's not the time to dip into your savings account, what is?" said Donauer, who noted he's usually opposed to tapping into the city's reserves. 

He says city administration needs to do a better job of cutting back spending overall as it deals with the pandemic, noting every new hire for the city needs to be challenged and approved to ensure they're necessary, noting what constitutes necessity may look different in 2021 than it did in 2018.

Ward 7 Coun. Mairin Loewen said while she appreciated Davies bringing the motion forward as it is something residents want council to discuss, she was worried by the situation.

"Although I share the desire to provide some relief around tax increases, what's proposed here exceeds my appetite for risk," she said. Loewen explained while she is not trying to cast doubt on the city administration's ability to weather the storm, she says it's important for councillors to think through worst-case scenarios.

"To me the possibility, low as it may be, of needing to manage this over a number of budget years and for the impacts of this decision to potentially deliver on important capital projects, that's more risk than I'm personally willing to take on at this stage." 

Ward 8 Coun. Sarina Gersher also expressed concern saying she's worried this type of budget move by council may jeopardize some aspects of the city that contribute to its overall quality of life, saying she worries it may affect green spaces, paddling pools and other community amenities.

A breakdown of the 2021 budget from the City of Saskatoon detailing changes and adjustments made to the 2021 budget after it was approved last year as part of the city's multi-year budget cycle. (Supplied by City of Saskatoon)

Police budget sees reduction of almost $200,000

During budget deliberations, City Manager Jeff Jorgenson thanked the federal and provincial governments for their support during the pandemic, saying the city's budget would have been "decimated" if it wasn't for their help, noting services and infrastructure would have suffered. 

Council also voted to have the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners come back to council with a revised budget by Dec. 11 after Ward 2 councillor Hilary Gough successfully introduced a motion to reduce the SPS budget by $199,300. 

The service had initially asked for an increase in funding of 4.72 per cent over 2020, bringing the total budget to $115.2 million, with the cash being used to hire five new special constables. Gough said while she wants the budget reduced, she had no issue with the SPS continuing the hiring as a priority.

"What I heard is the pressures of this year aren't fully equivalent to the ask that was being made," she said.

City councillors also voted to reduce the travel budgets for mayor and council by $71,000 with the remaining cash being converted into a pooled travel fund, with priority given to existing council commitments. 

An additional $65,000 was allocated for additional berm cutting in the city and $100,000 will be allocated to a reserve to be used for innovative, affordable housing. 

Saskatoon City Councillors also voted in favour of reducing parking meter revenue and streetscape reserve contributions for free parking on Saturday from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2021 resulting in $158,500 being added to the budget. This cost will be offset by a reduction of an equal amount to the city's Reserve For Capital Expenditures.

CFO says pandemic budget process much different

Kerry Tarasoff, the City of Saskatoon's Chief Financial Officer, said the 2021 process was "way different" than budget deliberations gone by.

"We didn't really know what to expect going into this," he said. "It's tough doing a budget in front of everybody, never mind over computers." 

Tarasoff said the fact the councillors and administration were not all in the same room, as is typical, was also a change as there's no chance to read the room or people's reactions.

Kerry Tarasoff, the City of Saskatoon's Chief Financial Officer, speaks with reporters following a city council meeting at Saskatoon City Hall on July 29, 2019. Following Thursday's budget deliberations, he said the virtual process was "way different" than budgets gone by. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

"It's hard to sometimes maybe step in when you might want to clarify a question, so it was a little different," he said. 

Mayor Clark said he appreciated the work of everyone involved in the process and said he looks forward to what the future holds. 

"I look forward to the year ahead as we work with this budget and we keep finding that great balance while meeting the needs of our citizens while also finding a way to run the city as efficiently as possible."