Calgary city council passes 3.87% property tax hike to fund fire, roads, downtown, climate

Calgary city council voted Wednesday to make adjustments to the last year of a four-year budget cycle. Those adjustments will include a tax increase to accommodate more than $172 million in new spending this year. Adam MacVicar reports.

The City of Calgary’s budget for 2022 will see a modest increase in property taxes while seeing added funding for a wide variety of issues.

Following approvals for changes to the budget brought by city officials and the Calgary Police Service, council looked at other items they heard about on the campaign trail.

The add-ons included further investment in downtown, affordable housing, arts and culture, public safety, roads and climate action.

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According to Global News calculations, council approved more than $155 million from that à la carte menu.

The budget was passed on an 11-4 vote on Wednesday, with councillors Chu, Chabot, McLean and Sharp in opposition. It is expected to increase the property tax rate by 3.87 per cent or about $6.18 per month for a homeowner that has a single-detached home with a median market value.

“Specific tax rate impacts will vary by property type depending on the assessed value of a home or business as well as next year’s provincial tax rate, which will be finalized in the first half of 2022,” a city press release noted.

“I think most Calgarians would agree that when we have got neighbours and fellow citizens in desperate times who simply don’t even have a roof over their head, this is the least we can do,” Mayor Jyoti Gondek said.

Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra described the budget as “fiscally constrained but very hopeful and very supportive.”

“We kept the budget increase below growth plus inflation, but we did invest in things that are important, and we made some strong signals about what this council values,” Carra said.

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Ward 13 Coun. Dan McLean, who voted against all but the downtown add-on and voted against the budget as an omnibus item, said it’ll be a tough sell.

“I think my mandate from my residents was a freeze or a hold on taxes, and we’re not going to get there,” McLean said

Gondek said the new council made the budget they inherited their own.

“It’s incredibly significant for Calgarians to understand that the budget is a reflection of their values and our values,” Gondek said. “So that’s what we’re doing today: we are sending a very clear signal that we have listened to people and we are acting in a way that’s responsible and taking care of Calgarians.”

Gondek defended the addition of more than 150 full-time equivalents to the city.

“To do good work, you need people to execute on the plans,” she said. “So without people doing the work that we’ve requested them to do, it’s going to be impossible to get things done.”

She added that previous austerity measures “have put us in a very precarious position.”

“I think you are also seeing today that members in council believe that if we invest in ourselves, it will guide social, environmental and economic recovery, which we are so desperately in need of.”

Fighting fire with funding

The Calgary Fire Department received a $10 million boost to its budget for an increased “relief factor.”

“The idea behind a relief factor is to have enough staff, enough firefighters available so that we can fulfill our obligations and our responsibilities, to have coverage to fight fires and also be supporting their training opportunities,” community services GM Katie Black said.

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But the added positions won’t be enough to bring the fire department’s response up to NFPA 1710 standard that the Calgary Firefighters Association raised the alarm about on Monday.

“With current staffing levels, it’s safer to live in Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto than Calgary,” Matt Osborne of the Calgary Firefighters Association told council, noting the city has the lowest-staffed metropolitan fire department in the country.

“Even though on paper it shows our budget having grown slightly, because we’ve taken on investments in new areas, but those tend to just stretch our system further and create challenges for us,” CFD Chief Steve Dongworth said, adding the department had been encouraged to only bring asks related to front-line services in recent years.

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The new funds will allow the department to hire 56 new firefighters and six new training officers.

“We are still struggling to get training done (while understaffed), particularly with a backlog of training that’s been caused by COVID,” Dongworth said.

Snow, traffic, roads and paths

Calgary’s snow and ice control budget got a $10.5 million boost to the annual budget.

That will change the plan from a seven- to six-day plan, clearing snow from major roads to levelling ruts in residential areas in less than a week.

It also improves snow clearing for pedestrians, including along paths and bus stops and windrow removal downtown.

Traffic controls, safety improvements and sidewalk changes to become more accessible got added funding.

Council approved $10 million to be pulled from reserves to improve the condition of roads and paths.

Downtown redevelopment topped up

Council endorsed further reinvestment in downtown.

With $45 million already committed to redevelopment grants, council approved $55 million for another tranche under Phase 1 of the downtown development incentive program, which is given out as rebates to approved programs.

City officials told council the program has been oversubscribed, with five projects so far getting the green light. This new funding will help six projects take up 790,000 square feet of vacant office space, bringing the total to 1.3 million square feet or almost 10 per cent of downtown vacancies.

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The estimated construction value for the 11 projects is $325 million, including the $100 million total, but benefits to downtown won’t be limited to increased land value and tax base.

“From the city’s perspective, there is a wide range of return on investment benefits that we get from this investment that is beyond the incentive that we provide to the individual building owner,” planning GM Stuart Dalgliesh said.

Addressing affordable housing

Council endorsed increasing funding for affordable housing, with $10 million being freed up to match federal housing dollars for construction on an expected 125 new homes.

Director of Calgary Housing Sarah Woodgate said the city has already received funding for 174 units under the federal government’s $1 billion Rapid Housing Initiative and 11 other projects were left unfunded.

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The decision also added $2.65 million in operating funds, doubling the housing incentive program to help housing providers create 300 units annually and tripling the investment in the Home Program to benefit 6,000 Calgarians annually.

Climate and planning

Two weeks after declaring a climate emergency, councillors have also dedicated an amount to fight climate change.

Gondek said after that declaration was made, citizens challenged council to act.

“I think you can see now that we have a council that’s willing to take action by embedding in a budget the points that we need to see moved upon very quickly,” Gondek said.

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Eighteen temporary positions within the team leading climate efforts in the city were made permanent.

Dick Ebersohn, city manager of climate change and environment, told council that since 2016, the team he now leads had three staff members and increases to the team only came in 2020.

Ebersohn said with the funding, the city can start emission reductions work by launching programs in 2022 on the area of the city that creates the most greenhouse gases: buildings.

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Part of the city’s climate mitigation and adaptation work, from another angle, will be done with a funding increase to the Local Area Plan process.

“This city has existed for decades in just putting people on the edge, and the climate emergency demands that we start to grow up and we start to grow up thoughtfully,” Carra said.

Cultural investments

Council voted to fund some of the calls to action captured in the White Goose Flying Report.

To enable moving part of the calls to action forward, council approved $15.5 million, with the lion’s share going to secure property for an Indigenous gathering centre and design of the permanent memorial for residential school victims.

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The arts and culture sector got $3.2 million in municipal funds: $2 million to Calgary Arts Development Agency and $1.2 million in micro-grants.

James McLaughlin, acting director of Calgary recreation, said CADA’s work through the pandemic has been vital for the arts sector.

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“Through the downturn, they were instrumental in distributing some support funding… to help these organizations make up for the lack of revenue due to COVID restrictions as well as the reduction in attendance, behaviour by the public due to COVID,” McLaughlin said.

A warm-up round

The 2022 budget adjustments were the last for the current four-year budget cycle. Another one will have to be drawn up by council in the coming year.

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Gondek said the fiscal changes made by this council were a preview for the upcoming budget cycle.

“I think the changes today are a very clear indicator that this council is taking its role very seriously, that we are not afraid to have some heavy discussions, that we are incredibly interested in making sure that we are making decisions through the lens of resiliency, including environment, society and economy,” she said.

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