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Look but don’t touch

I know most of us are more concerned with the roads but have any of you noticed the condition of many of our light standards in the city.  Some are almost completely rusted through.  I have poked at more than one and had my finger go right through.  Others are really swaying in the recent wind. 

According to city reports, City Council has not only ignored city roads but also our electrical grid.  I know, I know, marking priorities is hard.

There were roads, bridges, and snow to neglect and now we have light poles that are not structurally safe and are rusting out. It’s actually remarkable that council could let so many things at the same time.

Oh wait, amidst all of our infrastructure falling, we have a clear goal.  In case you have ever wondered what drives the Mayor and council’s desire to keep taxes low when our city needs revenue, it is Calgary.

This is from 2011.

Saskatoon’s mayor is eyeing a property tax increase of one per cent per year less than Cowtown’s over the next decade.
In 10 to 15 years, Saskatoon’s tax rate could equal that of Alberta’s biggest city, where ratepayers have the lowest property taxes among major cities in the country, he said.

Calgary has fun with this.

To help set its mill rate, Calgary relies on a so-called municipal inflation rate, a combination of costs for salaries, service contracts, fuel and materials. Saskatoon’s administration is coming up with a formula to calculate its own municipal inflation rate and Atchison has said in the past it makes sense to try to tie property tax hikes closely to that amount rather than the consumer inflation rate.

Property tax increases since Atchison became mayor have averaged 3.7 per cent annually. During the same period, Calgary’s property tax has gone up by an average of 4.2 per cent with the municipal portion jumping an average of 6.5 per cent.

Atchison’s wish already has a fiscally prudent Calgary alderman, Andre Chabot, chuckling.

He notes this spring council chose to boost the education portion of the property tax by a onetime whopping 10.4 per cent to take advantage of the province’s move to cut its portion of the property tax.

By comparison, Saskatoon’s property tax rose by a relatively small four per cent in 2011.

“For the mayor of Saskatoon to make a claim like that, it certainly is a politically astute kind of selling feature for his proposed tax increases,” Chabot said, “because he can always make the argument that it was at least one per cent lower than Calgary’s increase.

So how many miles of roadways does “politically astute” pay for?

Of course there is a reason why Calgary’s mill rate is lower.  They collect more business tax.

Jack Vicq, professor emeritus of accounting at the University of Saskatchewan Edwards School of Business, said there are differences between how Saskatoon and Calgary are funded that need to be accounted for. The amount in business tax collected in Calgary keeps its property tax rate lower, he said.

More from Vicq

“Let’s make sure the framework we’re in is the same,” Vicq said. “I would go at it from the perspective of really, what is it we should be doing in the city of Saskatoon and how are we going to do that? And maybe that takes a property tax that is higher than Calgary. You can get into trouble by just looking at Calgary and saying, ‘I want to be there.’

“You might lose sight of what you should be doing as a city or what residents expect as a city.”

As an aside, as the video below shows, I am not sure that our mayor even understands basic tax policy.

Back to what we are talking about.

First of all, the reason we have a lower rate is that we don’t fund the city the same way.  We have inferior snow removal and road repair policies to Calgary.  We also do things like underfund transit and force them to purchase worn out busses from places like Edmonton.  Parts of our bus fleet are so old that people come from all over North America to ride them.  The reason we keep using them, they are cheap to run (but you knew that already).

We don’t repair things like light poles is no big shock but now we have the cost of replacing them that is going to be a big shock to the bottom line.  Either that or we will just watch them fall over.

If you are ever in budget review meetings, you hear city managers say, “If you cut this amount, I can’t afford to do maintenance on parks” or “We won’t have enough for fuel”.  Those things are cut anyway.  You know because why do city vehicles need fuel budgeted for properly.  In many ways I think you can say that Calgary is getting far more bang for their tax dollars than we do.

Instead of funding the city the way it needs, we have actually developed our own spin that blames “freeze thaw” for bad roads (we don’t have a freeze thaw cycle, it just freezes) or that rain wrecks our roads (because we are too cheap to use rock base and instead only use sand).  My favourite is listening to council talk about how brave and hard working our city workers are doing instead of talking about how underfunding is creating this mess.  My favourite was when Pat Lorje suggested that city council was under siege last winter because of the lack of snow removal which was something she voted against.

The whole things reminds me of Winston Churchill underfunding the defences of Singapore in 1937 while First Lord of the Admiralty and then calling the British general performance there abysmal when Japan invaded in 1942 and they had no defences to work with.

We have roads that are brutal because the Mayor and council stopped funding the roads years ago.  We have light posts that aren’t safe because the city doesn’t have the cash (because of our desire to beat Calgary) and our city is dirty and grimy into July because it is cheaper to clean the streets slowly rather than quickly.  We get upset that we don’t have enough swim lessons but underfund leisure services as the city has grown.

Jack Vicq is right.  Instead of playing political games, we need a council (who can override the mayor) and fund the city properly.  Instead we get a Twitter feed that is constantly tweeting power outages because they take large dividends out of Saskatoon Light & Power, a #BetterRoadsYXE hashtag, new pylons and lots of emails from the city telling me how much they are doing (that’s another topic).

While the 2011 article mentions the mayor, it is also the fault of city council.  Darren Hill, Pat Lorje, Charlie Clark & Tiffany Paulsen have all been there at least two terms and are working on their third terms.  Mairin Loewen, Ann Iwanchuk, Randy Donauer have all been re-elected once.  They are all there when the council pulls a mill rate out of Calgary and agree to it.  When you are as integral part of the problem, can you be part of the solution?

Sadly repairing the grid or maintaining the Traffic Bridge doesn’t get people elected.  New bridges and low taxes do.  This problem isn’t going to go away and if we don’t do something about it in 2016, the mess will be just huge when we do.

2 Comments

  1. Jolo says:

    The problem we have is that we cannot seem to get our city council motivated to do anything but cut taxes or raise special taxes because we want our streets plowed. Tell you what, I will ask my city councilor when we are going to start real infrastructure repairs, everyone else that reads your blog should do the same.

  2. kiki says:

    You can’t compare anything in Alberta to anything in Saskatchewan. Why? Provincial funding. The City of Saskatoon will NEVER be able to properly fund Transit, the way it’s funded in other provinces…Edmonton and Calgary get millions upon millions from the province. What Saskatoon gets is a pittance in comparison. (Don’t even start on comparing it to Vancouver, where over 40% of their transit is funded by fuel and other levies)

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