Mayor Cathy Heron says the 2024 budget was one of the more difficult budgets for council in recent years as “there was not a lot to move the needle” when it came to items council could remove from the budget to reduce the looming property tax increase.
Next year's city budget, which council finalized on Monday, carries with it a 5.5 per cent property tax increase and 7.2 per cent increase to monthly utility fees. The property tax increase means homeowners with a house worth an average of $500,000 can expect to pay an additional $226 in taxes next year.
“Business cases put forward by the city manager were necessary, and without lowering service levels there was not a lot of cuts to be had,” Heron said.
“Most of the increase is the 1.5 per cent for [the city's Repair, Maintain, Replace budget], which we need, and then inflation and staff costs — those kind of things that are really out of council's control.”
On top of the guaranteed 1.5 per cent property tax increase for the city's annual RMR budget, the city's chief administrative officer Bill Fletcher told council last month that about 4.7 per cent of the total property tax increase planned for next year is just to maintain city services. The remaining increase is a result of the city introducing transit services to the Jensen Lakes and Riverside neighbourhoods, funding the library and the Arts and Heritage Foundation, and paying down debt.
Both Coun. Natalie Joly and Coun. Ken MacKay told the Gazette that the fact council needed just one meeting to deliberate next year's budget, which is the first time multiple meetings weren't needed during their tenure on council, illustrates that city staff proposed a tight budget.
“Administration really worked hard to present a budget that met our strategic goals, but also was realistic when you consider all the challenges facing not only municipalities, but everyone, whether it's businesses or residents,” MacKay said. “My overall opinion about this budget is it was fair, it took into account some of the realities facing municipalities, and that's why you saw it pass in one council meeting.”
“Having so few changes pass during deliberations is a testament to how strong a budget administration presented, so the outcome was what I expected,” Joly said.
Coun. Wes Brodhead said working through next year's budget was difficult, but he was pleased that council didn't abandon their own policies.
“It was a difficult budget only because of the number,” Brodhead said, referring to the 5.5 per cent property tax increase. “I think what makes it a little bit more palatable for me is that the 1.5 per cent is there to do RMR, but also other municipalities are in the same boat having to deal with this.”
“I know we don't want to compare, but I think in doing that, what it says is that everybody's facing the same problem,” he said, referencing the City of Edmonton's upcoming 6.6 per cent tax increase, Calgary's 7.9 per cent increase, and Stony Plain's 6.95 per cent increase for maintaining operations only.
"It did not need to be that number"
Following deliberations on Monday, a motion to have administration prepare the final budget document for council's formal approval passed with Coun. Shelley Biermanski and Coun. Sheena Hughes Hughes opposed.
“I haven't seen a council less motivated to reduce the taxes than this year,” Hughes said. “This was the worst budget.”
“Not only were very few questions brought forward, very few motions were brought forward outside of what I brought forward... and when there were savings that were presented, the majority of this council said no,” she said, pointing to her unsuccessful motion to increase Servus Place's projected revenue by $180,000, which would have lowered the property tax increase by about 0.1 per cent.
Hughes put forward 18 of the 29 total budget motions that council worked through on Nov. 27. No other member of council had more than three motions.
Likewise, Biermanski said she's disappointed in the city's 2024 budget.
“I think that we missed a lot of savings that we could have passed on to the taxpayer,” she said, adding, “I would have liked to have done better for the taxpayer.”
Biermanski also said she was concerned about St. Albert's affordability as a result of next year's budget, and how the three budgets under this council's watch have raised property taxes by at least 12.4 per cent.
“You're looking at households that are struggling right now... and each year, that percentage becomes a higher number because we keep tacking on more and tacking on more.”
Heron said the 5.5 per cent tax increase doesn't influence the living wage in the community as much as things like federal and provincial income taxes do. Recently, St. Albert was ranked with the fourth highest living wage in the province.
“Property taxes aren't a significant influence on [the] living wage,” Heron said. “What we are doing is, hopefully, actually adding money and providing services to help those that are at... that breaking point of whether they have to buy food or pay rent.”
“We actually are spending money to help those people that are at the brink of the living wage — the property tax is not something they care about as much as food bank access.”
Although council completed budget deliberations on Nov. 27, the 2024 budget won't be formally approved until the middle of next month.