Mark Rendell

Aiming for no tax increase, city council cuts $2.1 million from 2015 budget

Streetscaping, parks and tourism take back seat as council focuses on fiscal restraint

With sights set on a zero per cent tax increase next year, City Council took shears to the 2015 budget, slashing more than $2 million in the first two days of debate.

Ahead of deliberations on the $71.6 million budget, the City was looking at a General Fund shortfall of around $770,000. This would have required a 2.98 per cent increase in municipal taxes. Shedding roughly $2.1 million in capital expenditures, should give council their zero-per-cent-tax increase, though the rate will ultimately depend on how much they decide to shuffle between reserve funds and the general fund in the coming days.

The new emphasis on fiscal restraint means lower taxes, but it doesn’t come without cost. Here are some of the projects affected:

Streetscaping on 52nd Ave and 50th Street – $800,000 Cut

The biggest cuts were to street beautification or streetscaping. Council voted unanimously to cut $550,000 from the $1.25 million budget to pave and streetscape a block of 50th Street between 52nd and 51st Ave.

The more controversial decision was to cut the streetscaping budget on 52nd Street. The entire repaving project is roughly $1.2 million over budget, according to councillors, however the City has already spent around $900,000 running irrigation lines and laying tree wells in preparation of “softscaping.”

At first Coun. Niels Konge put forward a motion to scrap the $500,000 needed to complete softscaping. Council split 50-50, half arguing the City already spent too much to give up on the project, and Mayor Mark Heyck broke the tie to defeat the motion.

A second motion to reduce the budget by 50 per cent was promptly accepted. With only $250,000, however, it’s unclear how much work City employees will be able to do. As Jeff Humble, the City’s Director of Planning and Development explained, it usually takes $500,000 to streetscape just one block. Now council is asking them to streetscape from 56th Street to 49th with half that amount.

Weigh scale at the dump – $250,000 Cut 

Right now dump users pay a flat rate depending on whether they’re commercial or residential, regardless of how much garbage they bring. To make pricing more equitable for commercial users, City administration proposed installing a weigh-out scale to measure how much junk people unload.

“There is quite a benefit in improved record keeping and better customer service,” argued Coun. Rebecca Alty, the chair of the Solid Waste Facility.

With a price tag of $250,000, however, council voted against it six to two.

”For me it’s not 250,000 worth of value,” argued Coun. Adrian Bell. “To be perfect and have every piece of information we want would be nice, but it’s very expensive.”

Parks – $240,000 Cut

Two parks won’t be seeing upgrades originally planned for next year. The $30,000 idea to put a basketball court at Moyle Park in the Niven Lake area was voted down after two councillors who live in the area assured council there was little neighbourhood support for the plan.

The question of putting $60,000 towards upgrading 23-year-old playground equipment at Doornbos Park caused more debate. There’s already a playground nearby at Weledeh Catholic School, and some councillors suggested the park isn’t in a suitable neighbourhood for kids anyway and should be repurposed for older users into something like a tennis court. After debating the merits the playground, council agreed to defer the $60,000 repairs until administration can look into other uses for the space.

They also voted to cut $150,000 from the $500,000 allocated to improve Old Town’s Wiley Road Park and Otto and Lessard Drive parks.

Tourism and branding – $95,000 Cut

The City’s Department of Communications and Economic Development was hoping to create a destination marketing organization for Yellowknife. This would have meant hiring a new employee on a three-year contract with an annual salary of $95,000.

The new position, which was a recommendation of the City’s Tourism Strategy approved earlier this year, would have been in charge of creating a destination marketing plan for Yellowknife, running marketing campaigns and working with the Government of the Northwest Territories’ new Convention Bureau.

Heyck called the move to axe the position “not very forward looking and detrimental to what we’re trying to achieve.”

“I don’t know why we spend a whole bunch of time and resources investing in strategies, such as the Tourism Strategy, if we’re not going to move forward with implementation of the recommendations,” he said.

The general feeling amongst councillors, however, was the City should wait and see how the GNWT’s new tourism efforts pan out before getting involved. “The more we take on, the less they’re going to take on,” said Bell.

In addition to cutting the destination marketing organization, council also voted down $50,000 earmarked for a new branding strategy for the City. They did, however, backtrack slightly on the second night of debate, green lighting $50,000 for a temporary contract to produce a destination marketing plan.

Technology – $100,000 Cut

In sweeping, though-not-necessarily-deep cuts, council scratched 20 per cent from the IT Reserve Budget for 12 technology related projects, including the City’s GIS mapping tool, satellite imagery, radio communication and security cameras. Several of the projects were one-off investments, while others were due to receive a chunk of money over the next two or three years. All told, the reductions will save around $100,000 in 2015.

“We’re making these investments year after year, and is it sustainable?” asked Konge. “I think we’re going for the Cadillac time and time again … We have a dwindling population… and I think our operations need to reflect this.”

Coun. Bob Brooks, who was the only person to oppose the cuts, argued that deferring technology upgrades ends up costing the City more.

“These types of IT projects have to be done on an incremental basis … if you leave something for five years, well suddenly what you’re doing is totally out of date and requires a much bigger cost to bring it back up to date.”

Fire safety – $110,000 Cut

A number of issues related to fire safety were hotly debated, and while council agreed to invest $100,000 over the next three years in Wildland Fire Mitigation – mostly to clear brush in heavily forested areas south of the city – they decided to defer the $110,000 Fire Division Master Plan until 2016 to 2017.

“We’re just going to launch the dispatch service in 2015, so I think we’d be better to review our fire division and make some suggestions in 2016 or 2017,” said Alty.

Mayor weighs in

In two instances, council was split 50-50 and Heyck broke the tie in favour of the project. One was a $100,000 solar energy project. The other was a motion to delay the installation of 124 new parking metres in the Downtown Core until further research had been done on the effect of metres on local residents.

The Mayor also introduced a successful motion to move $60,000 from the stalled Outdoor Recreation Facility near Con Mine’s budget to the Tommy Forrest Ball Park, following a presentation last week from the Yellowknife Fastpitch Association.

“The groups that use that use Tommy Forrest Ball Park have put a lot of sweat equity into that property, they are willing to bring a whole lot more that are. I think the City can do a whole lot more to contribute to that,” he said.

Over the course of two five-hour debates, the only increase in spending was another $50,000 to help fund the Day Shelter next year.

Budget deliberations will wrap up this evening and council will vote to approve the document on Monday.