Calgary city council heard from the public Monday as a week full of budget discussions kicked off.
Calgarians were already looking at a 3.4 per cent property tax hike next year, which was previously approved by council.
But following council's direction, city administration has proposed adding up to 28 items to the budget, and has recommended shifting some of the property tax burden from business properties to residential accounts.
If all of those proposed adjustments are accepted by council, it would mean 2024's municipal tax bill would increase by 7.8 per cent.
Councillors heard from dozens of people Monday.
Andrew Sennyah, speaking on behalf of Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told council that small businesses are struggling, and he urged councillors to proceed with the proposed shifting of the tax burden.
He said businesses have been through the wringer with pandemic restrictions, high interest rates and high inflation.
"Businesses need help from council and everyday Calgarians now more than ever," he said.
Calgarians made their opinions known in council chambers Monday. (Monty Kruger/CBC)
Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, called on council to increase the tax shift from businesses onto homeowners even further — to two percentage points immediately, instead of the proposed one percentage point next year.
She said that shift is needed to ensure businesses are successful long-term.
Other speakers called on council to address the cost of living for renters and homeowners.
Ward 8 resident Arthur Gallant told council he moved to the city from Hamilton two years ago with the goal of living in a bigger city that was also affordable.
"I spent dozens of hours researching major cities across the country. Calgary did such an excellent job selling itself that I locked myself into a lease and moved here with my cat, Danica, without ever having visited," he said.
"Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn't last very long because 2½ years later, Calgary has gone from being affordable and allowing me to live my dreams to being unaffordable and thus returning me to living an unaffordable life and not being able to take advantage of all the things I moved to Calgary for."
Gallant asked the city to open up portions of its fair entry program to renters who might not otherwise qualify. The fair entry program offers savings like recreation fee assistance and low-income transit passes to those who qualify.
Ward 6 resident Steve Williams, who is a business owner, said many families are living on the edge of poverty. He said the proposed tax increase would push some people out of their homes.
"Potentially for citizens out there that are living paycheque to paycheque, that may put them out on the street," Williams said.
Proposed hike too much for some
Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot said he cannot support the property tax shift.
"My residents will chase me out of office if I agree to that," he said.
He says many of the budget add-ons are "nice-to-haves," some of which fall outside the city's responsibility. He said he plans to reject some of the spending increases and will suggest other areas to reduce spending.
He cited investing $6 million annually in Calgary's mental health and addictions strategy as being in the provincial government's jurisdiction.
The big-ticket add-on items include covering higher costs due to inflation ($27 million), paying for a new housing strategy ($27 million in annual costs and $54 million in one-time costs) and improving transit and community safety ($15 million in annual costs with $2 million in one-time costs).
Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp agreed that 7.8 per cent is a number she's not comfortable with, and said she plans to introduce an amendment.
Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp speaks to reporters on Monday, amid public discussions on Calgary budget adjustments. (Mike Symington/CBC)
Mayor Jyoti Gondek has defended the possibility of a 7.8 per cent residential tax hike.
She said the tax ratio shift will help Calgary businesses stay competitive. And the additional spending in the proposed adjustments is responding to what Calgarians tell the city they want in terms of services.
"None of these are nice-to-haves," said the mayor.
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the additional spending is for needed items, not just nice-to-haves. (Mike Symington/CBC)
"There's a lot of people in our city right now that are in positions of extreme vulnerability, and it's absolutely imperative that the City of Calgary is delivering the services and products that those folks need."
While council hopes to set the 2024 property tax rate by the end of this week, next year's tax bills will not be finalized until the spring.
That's when the provincial government will reveal how much it wants the city to collect for the provincial education property tax.
Last year, council approved a 4.4 per cent municipal property tax hike for 2023.
The city maintains its property tax rates remain competitive among major Canadian cities. It says the average annual increase in taxes was 1.19 per cent over the 2019-23 period.