Saskatoon City Council began its budget deliberations on Monday.
Coming into the week, council was looking at a proposed budget from administration with a tax increase of 3.95 per cent. That works out to an extra $64.70 per year for the average person with a home assessed at $325,000.
Over the course of a 10-hour session, council approved most of the recommendations contained in the proposed budget. They also approved one new full-time employee for the Community Standards division, which handles bylaw enforcement. That position is for a customer service coordinator to handle complaints.
By the end of the day Monday, the proposed mill rate increase, with the addition of the new employee, was sitting at 3.98 per cent, or $65.02 for the owner of an average $325,000 home.
Various proposals that would also drive up the rate increase were deferred to Tuesday.
The largest was an item from Ward 3 Councillor Ann Iwanchuk. She suggested that council approve 0.86 per cent increases in each of the four years between 2016 and 2020. That money would be banked to form a residential snow removal fund.
Currently, the city has funding in place to provide snow clearing on residential streets once per year, provided the snowpack reaches a depth of six inches. But that snow isn’t removed, rather, it is piled up in windrows along the sides of streets, leading to complaints to councillors that the piled snow is blocking people’s parking spaces.
Iwanchuk’s proposal would see that snow trucked away. However, several councillors, along with Mayor Don Atchison, expressed reservations. Atchison said it was a tough sell to ask people to pay extra money and then wait four or five years to see any improvements in service. Ward 9 Councillor Tiffany Paulsen had similar concerns and wondered if there might be a way to incrementally add more snow removal so that people could actually see a return for the money right away.
Councillor Eric Olausen said he was worried that even if they got the fund in place, snow removal would likely mean a need for more snow dumps to store it all. With administration projecting a possible price tag between $65 million and $90 million, he said he wasn’t comfortable voting to collect the money and then risking not being able to deliver the service if council found itself unable to pay for the snow dumps.
Although he said he was doing it with ‘fear and trepidation,’ councillor Randy Donauer spoke in favour of the move. He said he’s heard loud and clear that his constituents want residential snow clearing. He suggested that $1.25 million generated from assessment growth could be applied to this year’s increase, bringing it down from 0.86 per cent to somewhere closer to 0.2 per cent.
Councillors will continue to debate residential snow-clearing on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, councillors will also look at:
- A proposal to increase funding for Tourism Saskatoon by an additional $50,000 to offset provincial funding cuts.
- A call for $12,000 to create a program similar to the city’s ‘Snow Angels’ promotion that encourages people to help the elderly or disabled to shovel their walks. The new program would encourage people to lend a hand to neighbours who have trouble getting their garbage bins out on collection days.
- An increase of $44,000 to extend the operating hours of the city’s paddling pools
Council rejects Saskatoon Public Library budget
Saskatoon Public Library director Carol Cooley ended up leaving empty handed for the time being after her presentation to council.
Cooley, who took over as head of the library this year, asked for an overall budget increase of $1.9 million for 2016. That would have brought the total library budget to $21.1 million.
Of the $1.9 million request, $1.2 million was earmarked for 15 new employees. Eight of those would be for a new branch set to open in Stonebridge. The other seven would have filled other roles in the organization, with Cooley saying there were particular needs for an information technology specialist, a facilities manager and a human resources manager. Cooley noted that the Library has added the equivalent of just over three full-time positions in the last 10 years and said the organization was struggling to meet its day-to-day goals due to chronic shortages of people.
Similar to money for education, library funding comes from its own dedicated chunk of property taxes. While an increase would still be felt by taxpayers it wouldn’t affect the city’s own proposed mill rate increase. Even so, several councillors expressed concerns.
Coucillors Zach Jeffries and Tiffany Paulsen both said they had trouble supporting the proposed budget, saying they needed to see more proof of the benefits of hiring the new staff.
Both acknowledged that there would likely have to be new staff hired for at least the new Stonebridge branch.
The library budget was voted down by a margin of 7-4. Cooley was told she would have another opportunity to present a revised budget before March.
Council votes to increase police funding, hire new constables
The Saskatoon Police Service saw its 2016 proposed budget approved by council. Overall, council unanimously approved an increase of 4.78 per cent, or $3.83 million. Some of that is to be directed to handle wage growth for existing staff. Another chunk of the increase will go to hiring eight new police officers.
The new hires carry a cost of $469,300 in 2016. With four of the eight set to be hired in January and the other four being brought on in August, the move will also mean a $154,000 carry-over into 2017.
Chief Clive Weighill said he came into the meeting confident after seeing his proposed budget rejected last year. But Weighill added that the extra money and staff will mainly allow police to handle the workload they already have, admitting that this budget likely won’t make big strides in reducing Saskatoon’s crime rate.
“What is driving crime in Saskatoon and in Regina and Winnipeg and Edmonton and northern parts of our province is the unfortunate situation that a lot of our First Nations and Metis people find themselves in. They’re living in poverty, poor housing, racism, disadvantage. And those are the social determinants that are driving crime in our area,” he said.
Weighill said that beyond just cities and police forces, provincial and federal governments would need to step up to help tackle those issues.
More money for Remai Modern gallery
Despite not actually having a building, the Remai Modern gallery got a budget increase of $1.37 million, bringing it to a total of $5.03 million for 2016.
Keitha McLocklin, the gallery’s volunteer treasurer, explained that in order to keep various provincial and federal grants, they have to operate various programs in the city whether they have a building or not.
She said the gallery has some 300 events planned for 2016, ranging from art workshops at local schools to the Art Caravan program, which provides hands-on art-making activities for kids at festivals and community events.
McLocklin said the gallery also needed money to hire the equivalent of 2.45 full time employees to help prepare for the gallery opening expected in 2017.
With the gallery building behind schedule and over budget, council approved a one-time transfer of $800,000 from its operating budget to its capital budget, in order to help offset increased costs to get the building finished.