If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it's that you never know what is going to happen and sometimes we have to make choices between the "nice to haves" and the "must haves". Unfortunately the City of Calgary has a spending problem and choices have to be made. During a recent Council Meeting (Nov 9, 2020), administration was asked if they calculated projected tax revenue and then determined where the money would be spent, or, if they decided how much they wanted to spend and then calculated what the tax rate would be. The answer was that the latter was the model they used.
Residential Tax Increases By Year
2020 - 7.55%
2019 - 3.45%
2018 - 3.80%
2017 - 5.00%
2016 - 3.50%
2015 - 4.50%
2014 - 4.80%
2013 - 13.0%
2012 - 5.10%
2011 - 10.40%
How big is the problem? When you compound the Residential Municipal tax increases over the last 10 years, taxes have increased approximately 80%! Some have justified the increases as being small, but when added to the increases from previous years, they really start to add up. The result, if your tax bill in 2010 was around $2500, it grew to $4500 in 2020.
For 2021 the effective tax increase has been targeted at 0%. My two comments on that being:
1) That should be a given based on the prior decades of increases and the issues facing Calgarians due to the pandemic.
2) This 0% tax increase is an amazing coincidence as we head into an election year. Recently City Council has been under fire from a number of sources. In fact, according to the latest survey, only 56% of people 25 and over are satisfied with the City of Calgary performance (including Council and Administration). Additionally, only 48% of those surveyed trust the City of Calgary (the lowest rating since it has been surveyed.)
It's time to start talking about controlling taxes, and not just during election years. Affordability is quickly becoming a topic of concern and as a city we need to work to ensure we remain an affordable place to live, purchase a home, and do business.
I would like to stress though that fiscal responsibility does not simply mean painful cuts across the board. It refers to taking a more responsible approach to spending, prioritizing projects and being creative. When administration was asked by council to budget for a 0% increase, they delivered. Maybe they should have been asked earlier? Maybe they should be asked for reductions in the future. Over the past few years I cannot count how many times I have heard the phrase "world class" used when trying to sell potential new projects. I think in the short term we might not need "world class". If we can afford it, I think "very good" or "excellent" will do quite nicely.
What are the key components to the plan?
- Push the S.A.V.E. program harder for efficiencies. Only 22 of the first 2500+ suggestions have been implemented. There is more to be gained in these efforts. Additionally this program needs to become more transparent and be opened up to input from all Calgarians. Not only should we all know what is being discussed, we should all have some input. You can click on the graphic below for more information on the S.A.V.E. program.
- Examine city staffing levels and costs. In a presentation made at last fall's budget meetings, administration presented a graphic showing that we spend roughly the same amount per capita as other Canadian cities yet we have fewer FTE staff. With salaries making up such a large percentage of the annual budget, this indicates that we are not managing these costs adequately and spending more per staff member than other cities. Indeed, the amount spent on overtime in the last year is equal to an amount that if saved would have kept the non-residential tax increase at zero percent to help our business community*. If we were to bring our expenditures per staff member into line with comparable municipalities through better management, we could not only control increases in expenses and taxation, but even possibly employ more people at the same expense levels as a way to increase employment and service levels for Calgarians. Proper management of staffing levels would could also assist in bringing overtime expenses under control. This bigger picture thinking is an example of fiscal "responsibility".
- Ensure capital projects bring bang for the buck. We need to stay focused with our capital project spending to ensure it achieves the goals set out for the project. If we become distracted, dollars get wasted. For example, an outgoing representative has suggested the cap on the public art spending as a percentage of the Green Line project should be expanded. But the goal of the project was not to increase public art installations. The goal is to provide transit service to Calgarians. Public art will still exist and grow (see my BLOG post "Give that dog a bone!"). I say we should take the money from the project that would be slated for public art and direct it to affordable housing and other community supports. That way the capital project provides service to those that need it most in much the same way it provides transit to those that need it. This redirection of capital to areas that have struggled to find funding in the past could actually reduce our expenditures as a whole to help keep a lid on taxation increases.
For more on getting bang for our buck on the Green Line project please see my BLOG posts; The Green Line , Green Line Update , and Connecting the C-Train to the airport for WAY less money .
Taken from a recent interview, a two minute segment on transparency.
We live in an age of information. As information on virtually any topic becomes more readily available, people can start to wonder "why?" when certain pieces of information are kept secret.
"In-camera" is the term used to describe sessions when council meets in private. A report indicated that city council met in-camera at least 748 times between 2013 and 2017 representing 23.7% of their time, compared to the previous council's 4.7%. In comparison, over the same time period the City of Hamilton met in private only 13 times, Toronto 18 times, and Ottawa only once.
In fairness, a report in 2018 indicated that council spent about 14% of its time in-camera that year. This is an improvement but still over 3 times the amount spent by a council lead by the previous Mayor.
There are those on council that feel this is not a big problem and that there are, "much bigger fish to fry in terms of things going on at the city." However, transparency leads to trust and a perceived lack of transparency to mistrust. And by the survey results, it looks like the city has a trust problem.
I will push hard for fewer in-camera sessions as well as communicating information to Calgarians in clear and simple terms that are easily understood in order to gain more of the citizens' trust.
Source: City Of Calgary Fall 2020 Citizen Satisfaction Survey
As we have seen provincially, nationally, and indeed south of the border, politics is becoming more and more divisive. Helping drive these divisions are the lack of respect politicians at all levels show to their fellow political representatives. The days of respecting someone's opinion, even if it differs from your own, seem to be fading fast. Outbursts and name calling seem to be replacing thoughtful debate at an increasing pace.
On the local level at city hall, this lack of respect manifests itself in many ways. On the more polite end of the spectrum, common displays of disrespect include dismissing fellow councillors and their ideas as "silly" or "ridiculous". While not foul, this disrespectful name calling indicates a lack of interest in hearing the opinions of the representatives of tens of thousands of Calgarians. Closer to the other end of the spectrum are some recent comments by a councillor that another was, "one of the most ignorant morons on council." This clearly crosses a line in terms of the decorum Calgarians deserve from their representatives. When there is a lack of respect from representatives toward their fellow councillors who represent a large number of Calgary citizens, they are really showing a lack of respect for Calgarians. When a person resorts to name calling, it usually means they have run out of ability to bring intelligent and relevant comments to the debate.
I will stand strong and support the people I represent, but to do it in a thoughtful and professional manner. Constituents shouldn't have to worry about their elected councillor making outlandish statements that could bring embarrassment to themselves or their Ward. I believe people are growing tired of career politicians and those who can't address simple questions with simple answers. "Yes or no" questions deserve "yes or no" answers. I will add a voice of reason to city council. A strong representative should also be one with an open mind. There is nothing to be learned by only listening to the opinions that are the same as your own. Through listening to Calgarians, thoughtful debate, and respectful interactions, we can all learn from each other and make Calgary an even better place to live. Calgarians deserve it.