Mark Rendell

Council approves 2015 budget with no tax increase and lower fees than expected

Result comes after $2.1 million cut from $70 million in planned spending

The average Yellowknife homeowner will get to bank nearly $60 more than expected next year after City Council passed the 2015 budget on Monday with no tax increase. Commercial property owners are looking at paying roughly $18 less than was budgeted for every $100,000 their property is worth.

Monday’s vote to not increase taxes followed a week and a half of debate that saw around $2.1 million shaved off a budget of roughly $70 million.

When the draft budget was presented in November, a shortfall in the City’s General Fund meant a tax increase of around three per cent could be expected, if no cuts were made. Council went to it, slashing funds for streetscaping, parks and tourism among other things.

“This is the most impactful, beneficial budget deliberations I’ve seen in the two terms I’ve been here,” said. Coun. Cory Vanthuyne. “I’m assuring you that what’s before us will have some lasting effects.”

Council also decided to halve the 2015 fee increases for the Water and Sewer Fund and the Solid Waste Fund. Both funds are running significant deficits that require annual user fee increases to come into balance within four to six years. The draft budget recommended increasing water and sewer fees by 10 per cent and solid waste fees by five per cent in 2015. However, council, on Mayor Mark Heyck’s recommendation, decided to halve this increase.

This means compared with 2014, the average single-family residence will have to pay roughly $7, rather than $14, more for water each month.

What to do with the savings?

The plan to stop tax increases and halve fee increases was not without its critics. Coun. Adrian Bell wanted to keep the fee increases at 10 and five per cent, but go further on cuts to property taxes.

“Those funds are designed to be full cost recovery, so now to give taxpayers a break on that side of things is us kicking the problem down the road,“ he said. “A reduction in the property tax levels to offset those increase in fees, I think is a more fair approach.”

Furthermore, he recommended using one third of the savings to establish a tax increase stabilization fund that could be used to offset future jumps in tax rates, though dropped the idea after council agreed to discuss it during a review of budget policies expected early in the new year.

Considering the actual amount Yellowknifers could save, Bell’s and Heyck’s plans were fairly similar. “It’s really six of one half a dozen of the other,” said Coun. Rebecca Alty.

“It really comes down to whether we want to follow our philosophy of the user pays,” she said, arguing in support of Bell’s idea.

Coun. Niels Konge wanted to see the entire $2.1 million go towards reducing property taxes. When administration informed him a chunk of the $2.1 million came from federal and territorial grants for capital projects and thus couldn’t be given back to taxpayers, he suggested taking the budget back to the cutting board and finding more fat to trim.

In the end, the mayor’s proposal won, but only after being voted down once during Monday’s Municipal Services Committee Meeting then succeeding after a 50-50 vote split that Heyck had to break.

And while all councillors favoured no tax increase in 2015, Coun. Phil Moon Son capped off the budget debate by warning zero-per-cent tax increases are not sustainable in the long run.

“There are some issues that we as council and the community need to evaluate if we are going to go down that path of having continuous zero per cent increases in taxes,” he said. “We have to evaluate what type of services we’re going to provide, how we’re going to provide those services and it’s got to be implemented into a long-term strategy.”

Some things that made the cut

Water and Sewer Treatment Plant

Coming in at $8.3 million, the biggest capital expenditure for the second year in a row is the new Water and Sewer Treatment Plant and upgrades to Pumphouse #1. Nearly $25 million has already been spent on the project, but 2015 should be the last major expenditure: work in 2016 is only supposed to cost $150,000.

Road Maintenance

The ongoing battle against road decay continues in 2015 with $1.25 million to finish paving Utsingi Dr. in Kam Lake. Paving and minor landscaping will wrap up on 50th st and 52 Ave. for $700,000 and $250,000 each.

On the sewer front, Horton Crescent is getting a $2-million overhaul after “frost-susceptible ground conditions … caused the sanitary sewer mains to heave.” On Forrest Dr., the pipes that caused the sinkhole in 2012 will be replaced for $700,000.

New Ice Plant for the Arena

With ice-making chemical R-22 freon being phased out, the Yellowknife Community Arena and the Curling Club are getting a new ice plant, as well as a heat-recovery refrigeration system, for $1.2 million. According to the budget, the heat recovery system is slated to save the city $109,000 annually in oil costs, as well as reduce the annual output of carbon dioxide by 159 tonnes.

New Parking Metres

Streets in and around the downtown core are getting another 124 two-hour and nine-hour parking metres next year. As each metre can earn about $3.50 a day, the 124 metres are expected to net the City around $108,000 annually. The City’s goal is to have 328 installed by the end of 2016.

Homelessness

The City’s assistance to Yellowknife’s homeless population was bolstered by a $50,000 commitment to the Day Shelter as well as $43,460 to change the City’s Homlessness Coordinator position from half- to full-time.