It was a night of brainstorming and venting for Regina city council as an emergency debate was held to find possible ways to make up a sudden shortfall of several million dollars.
City administration now has about two weeks to re-open the previously passed 2017 budget and find a way to fill that financial gap.
The majority of the previously scheduled Monday council meeting was put off until Tuesday, replaced instead by the special agenda after the provincial budget was released last Wednesday. It was revealed grants-in-lieu (GIL) payments from SaskPower and SaskEnergy were being removed.
PST was also raised to six per cent and expanded to cover things like restaurant meals, children’s clothing, construction services and insurance premiums.
“This is a budget that comes like a thief in the night. It hides out in dark corners,” expressed Ward 2 Coun. Bob Hawkins. “What the provincial right hand purports to give, the left is taking away.”
The municipal revenue sharing agreement is being preserved, but Hawkins called that “an illusion” since the GIL payments are being removed as of April 1.
“The budget scares me … I’m scared of the future,” said John Findura, councillor for Ward 5.
The administration estimated the city will lose about $8 million this year since GIL payments are prorated. That’s equivalent to raising taxes another 3.8 per cent. Changes to PST are also expected to tack on another $2.3 million in 2017.
In a full year, staff estimate the changes will leave the city without $10.7 million in GIL payments and $3 million related to PST, shortchanging Regina council $13.7 million in 2018 and beyond.
“I’m tired of the downloading and it’s got to stop,” exclaimed Ward 7 Coun. Sharron Bryce. “We want to find $13.7 million. Upload these back, say ‘no, I’m not going to take anymore.’”
“We deserve better than this and our residents deserve better than this,” echoed Joel Murray, the councillor for Ward 6.
Ward 8 Coun. Mike O’Donnell issued a challenge to the province.
“I’d like to invite all the people of the legislature into an office over here and I’d like to administer a test, and the test would go like this: ‘please tell me how municipalities are funded?’, because I don’t think they understand,” he said.
Mayor Michael Fougere indicated it was the lack of consultation by the province that ultimately left council surprised by the decision to eliminate GIL.
“It came out of nowhere. Many municipalities have already set their budgets and that’s why there’s some angst and concern and anger from this council,” he said.
Fougere said on Wednesday afternoon he, along with Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark and Yorkton Mayor Bob Maloney, will meet with ministers Kevin Doherty, Donna Harpauer and Joe Hargrave.
“We want this decision on grants-in-lieu to be reversed. Simply reverse the decision and do what’s right,” he said.
The Wall government has said everyone has to do their part in these challenging financial times, suggesting the city use part of its reserves to make up the shortfall, which isn’t an option according to councillors and the mayor. Minister Doherty said the mayor might have to make difficult decisions like the provincial government had to.
Regina potentially has a number of other options. After a 3.99 per cent tax hike was decided in February, a further increase in municipal taxes is possible. Fougere said if that were to happen he’d make sure a ‘provincial levy’ line was added to property tax bills so residents knew why taxes were again going up.
Cuts to programs and services are on the table. O’Donnell asked if certain infrastructure projects, such as bridges, can be deferred.
The mayor also asked the administration to look into annual tax exemptions for provincially-owned and other properties or if it’s possible to collect rent or receive payment back from the province for land the new joint-use schools sit on.
“I hope the province is listening. I hope they come to understand that a compromise is needed here,” said Fougere.
Council voted to ask the city manager and his administration to re-open the 2017 budget and come back to council on April 10 with a solution.