Debate on 4-year budget plan gets underway at Calgary city council

Calgary city counil is set to debate its new four-year budget, which proposes hikes in transit fares, waste and recycling fees, and higher costs for a range of city services. (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)
Calgary city counil is set to debate its new four-year budget, which proposes hikes in transit fares, waste and recycling fees, and higher costs for a range of city services. (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)

City council has set aside this week to debate Calgary's new four-year budget plan, and while city administration calls it a "modest budget," whether that description stands will depend on potential changes council may approve.

Several councillors say they plan to bring forward proposals for changes to the budget.

Unveiled on Nov. 8, the budget proposes a 4.4 per cent property tax increase for 2023 as well as hikes in transit fares, waste and recycling fees, and higher costs for a range of city services.

The plan also calls for a $10-billion capital spending program over the next five years and spending increases for police, fire and other services.

Improvements in transit service are promised, but the details have not yet been released. The city is planning to buy 25 new LRT cars so it can return to four-car CTrains and phase out its aging fleet of U2 vehicles in 2026.

Budget documents show that at the end of the four-year budget cycle, there will be 566 more full-time equivalent jobs on the city payroll.

With investments in city services, Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said the budget strikes a reasonable balance.

"I think that there's some things we need to rethink and reconsider," said Penner. "But I would say overall, the investments are in part what's needed."

In crafting the budget, administration followed council's direction to come up with a plan that keeps spending and taxes below the rate of inflation plus the projected population growth in coming years.

After years of spending reductions and some layoffs, administration had warned council a year ago that a tax cut or even a freeze just wouldn't be possible in this budget. Indeed, an annual average tax hike of 3.7 per cent is projected over the four-year plan.

Revitalizing downtown Calgary

Penner said she'll be interested in talking about the fare strategy for Calgary Transit. Adult fare hikes of 10 cents are being called for in each of the next four years, bringing the cash fare to $4 in 2026.

Penner said she wants to pursue ways that transit can draw in more young riders and keep them riding when they get older.

In some Canadian cities, that means youth ride free as an incentive to use transit. Penner said she'll be asking transit officials to run some numbers to see what that kind of initiative might cost here in Calgary.

The budget also calls for a $69-million investment in public safety services like police and the fire department. This funding is of interest to Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp, who said investment in safety services is what constituents in her part of Calgary are pushing for in this budget.

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However, given inflation in Calgary and the economic pressure many people are under, Sharp is worried about the tax hike that's on the table.

"We don't need to have 4.4 per cent [tax hike] for 2023," she said.

To try and bring down that number, Sharp said she'll be looking for reductions, delaying some project spending for future years or dipping into reserves.

Sharp also wants more of a focus on revitalizing downtown Calgary, which she said her constituents remain concerned about.

"A healthy downtown starts to support the rest of Calgary, and it's actually something that I campaigned on," she said.

Calgarians will get a chance to speak directly to council about the budget and their ideas on Tuesday at a public hearing, which allows anyone to have five minutes to present their feedback to council.