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Budget discussions causing concern for public sector, community services

Last Updated Nov 26, 2019 at 6:13 am MDT

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — As a week of budget discussions get underway at Calgary City Hall, public hearings took priority on Monday.

Numerous people, some representing advocacy groups such as Keep Calgary Strong, came out against the prospect of service cuts — even if it means saving the average homeowner a few dollars a month.

Among those saying the city should re-think the idea of reducing or eliminating the property tax hike was a representative for public sector employees in Calgary.

“I’ll put to you that this is not an expenditure problem, this is a revenue problem,” said CUPE Local 38 President D’Arcy Lanovaz. “And you cannot cut your way out of a revenue problem.”

This sentiment was echoed by the Calgary and District Labour Council, who asked Council to instead start lobbying the provincial government for more sources to stabilize revenue.

They also presented several ideas, including introducing taxes on ridesharing or SkipTheDishes.

Lanovaz told council there’s a concern that the public sector is being demonized throughout these budget discussions, a sentiment that Mayor Naheed Nenshi agreed with however he would not say that some councillors seemingly prefer cuts to that sector.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Nenshi.

“I think that every one of my colleagues is very, very cognizant of the very real impact we’re having on people’s lives. That’s 150 families who lost their jobs after our snap decision in July, which we ought not to have done.”

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That decision, and several other pushes to reduce the amount of costs spent on city employees, has been an issue for the unions.

“I will say that the last two years have contributed to some of the lowest morale that I have ever seen in this organization,” Lanovaz told council.

While some councillors have been vocal against any sort of tax increase, the Mayor said that we have to be cautious and remember to value the services offered by the city.

“We’ve got to be thoughtful about the value that people provide,” Nenshi added.

“It’s hard for me to go through and say these services are essential and must be protected at all costs, and these are nice-to-haves. Because fundamentally, we do 61 things at the City of Calgary and every single one of them makes a difference to people’s lives every single day.”

Nenshi also noted that it’s interested there is almost nobody coming forward in favour of budget cuts.

“With the exception of one of the business improvement areas who said, listen, we’ve got to make some tough choices here and you’ve got to do the (tax) shift and keep your budget increase as low as possible.”

Nenshi said he has heard “loud and clear” about the concerns surrounding the low-income transit pass and is hoping for a better solution that doesn’t involve some of the city’s most vulnerable residents facing rising bills.

“You’re talking about cutting transit routes and hours, affordable housing, and community social work. These services make our city resilient and livable,” said Reverend Anna Greenwood-Lee with Keep Calgary Strong.

Also in the department of community services, numerous people came forward calling out the decision to close the Beltline and Inglewood pools at the end of the year.

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The Beltline Fitness Centre got a lot of focus, as it offers cheaper services right in the middle of the city and is seen as a safer option for some people, compared to Repsol Centre for example.

Natalie Sitt told councillors about when she told her daughter the pool, where she takes swimming lessons, would be closed down.

“I asked her over breakfast hey what do you think if we close the pool? She was like ‘I would be sad and grumpy.’ And if you’ve seen a sad and grumpy four-year-old, it’s pretty sad and grumpy.”

Nenshi said there seems to be an issue with council frittering over some of the more minor decisions facing them, as the closures would save the city less than $1 million a year each.

But finally, as Nenshi has advocated for continually over the past few months, there’s a different solution that needs to be looked at.

The crux of the problem is the split of property taxes, and how businesses face a larger share of that demand compared to homeowners.

A reason why there is the consideration for raising residential property taxes by either 1.5 or three per cent is that it would put the city closer to a clean 50/50 split on residential and non-residential property taxes.

So while that would mean homeowners pay a bit more every year, it could help keep more businesses afloat and retain employment.

“The solution to this problem is tax reform,” said Nenshi.

“Property tax is a lousy way for government to gather its revenue. And it’s particularly lousy for people on fixed incomes who live in neighbourhoods that have become fashionable, and it’s particularly lousy for small business who are taxed on their landlord’s wealth instead of on their own business income.

“There are things that we’ve investigated in the past that we need to look at again in terms of helping to blunt the impact on our budget.”

There will be more details from city administration coming Tuesday and Wednesday, with an actual decision from council on the tax increases coming on Thursday or Friday.