What should have been a relatively “easy” budget confirmation process will likely prove quite challenging, says Mayor Cam Guthrie as he looks ahead to the coming year.
Not only must council consider the impact of legislative changes, the mayor would like to see more financial room made to address issues created by provincial under-funding of mental health care, housing support programs and more – all without a major property tax increase.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy,” Guthrie said of making changes to and confirming the second part of the two-year budget approved last fall, prior to the recent municipal election. “(Campaign) platforms are going to be challenged. Not because of challengers but because of legislation. What people ran on, what people said is going to be challenged and that’s not because myself as mayor or councillors are trying to abandon things they ran on … it’s because we are creatures of the province.”
The city’s first multi-year budget was approved last fall with a 4.21 per cent property tax increase for 2022 and a 5.17 per cent jump in 2023, which will be the starting point when council begins the confirmation process next month.
A 2023 draft city budget is set for public release on Jan. 12.
While specifics aren’t yet known, city staff previously indicated the financial impact of Bill 23, which amends 18 pieces of provincial legislation with a stated goal of creating more housing, could be equal to a two per cent tax increase.
That amount isn’t included in the anticipated 5.17 per cent rise.
Among the many changes in Bill 23, the More Houses Built Faster Act, are reductions to development charge and parkland dedication fees municipalities collect from developers to help cover the cost of infrastructure needed to support growth.
“These legislative changes that came out of absolutely nowhere and we’re going to have to try to figure out how to handle those issues,” said Guthrie, noting the bill was introduced a day after the municipal election.
City council raised a number of concerns about the impact of the legislation during its November session, unanimously approving a motion that called for commenting periods to be extended, with provincial policies and penalties reviewed regarding housing projects that have been approved but not built.
“We can stand our ground but we also have to now work within that system the best we possibly can. We have to move forward on whatever the legislative changes are, especially when it comes to housing, Bill 23,” said Guthrie. “My goal is to work within that framework, as much as I may like some of it or I may not like some of it at all, but work within that to be the best possible city for housing to get built.
“That’s my vision for starting next year.”
The mayor’s pleased to see progress being made locally to address homelessness, including the launch of construction or renovations needed for several supportive housing projects to come onboard as well as the creation of a strategic advisory group on downtown issues, a sub-committee of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness and Community Safety.
The latter recently resulted in city council approving funding for extended downtown drop-in hours and county dollars to hire a street outreach worker to help people at the drop-in to access community services.
Guthrie said he’d like to see city council do more to help people in need.
“It’s been really amplified within the community because we’re seeing it, we’re hearing it, we’re feeling it and it cannot be ignored,” he said regarding public awareness of homelessness-related matters. “The last few years, having our eye on this issue positioned us well because we now have three supportive housing projects that are being built or renovated.”
Past actions also put the city in a “very, very good spot” to endure the financial impacts of the pandemic, Guthrie said, though he called for additional provincial and federal dollars to help out.
“Even though the height of the pandemic may be behind us, the ripple effect of that issue is going to be felt for some time,” Guthrie said.
He pointed to the city achieving a AAA credit rating, the highest possible, as evidence of sound financial planning.
“It will actually save the taxpayers dollars,” Guthrie said, explaining it allows the city to borrow money at a lower cost. “I think that speaks to the lens in which we have been dealing with the coffers in the proper way before COVID hit, which enabled us to get through that from a financial end very, very well.”