Pass The Blame Up
City slams province for broken promise
by Paul Dechene
When the hall cleared after the April 27 special city budget meeting, council had whittled down this year’s mill rate increase to 4.0 per cent.
That’s just a sliver smaller than the 4.5 per cent proposed in the draft budget. But it looks like a whopping huge increase if you line it up against last year’s zero per cent property tax change.
It is, in fact, the largest mill rate increase Reginans have faced since 2005.
Now, if a boost to property taxes has got you steamed then, based on many of the comments made by council at this meeting, you should aim your ire up the governmental food chain.
Ward 9 councillor, Terry Hincks, didn’t mince words on the subject: “The provincial government should take all the heat for this because they set up a funding formula and didn’t stick to it.”
The funding formula to which he’s referring is the Municipal Operating Grant, under which the city currently receives $25.9 million. However, according to the original terms of the MOG, that amount was supposed to increase to about $34.3 million this year.
In other words, as part of their plan to balance their books, the provincial government shorted Regina $8.4 million (and, of course, they did likewise to every other community in Saskatchewan). To hear city council tell it, the turn of events has left them struggling just to meet their financial commitments.
Despite this, the mill rate increase was reduced thanks to a motion by Ward 1 councillor, Louis Browne, who proposed covering the 0.5 per cent reduction by drawing $662,000 from the newly-created Land Development Reserve.
“Why I didn’t support a 4.5 per cent increase and wanted to bring it down some is I think I have more local improvements going forward in my ward than anyone else,” says Browne. “I have two big local improvement projects going forward and for those citizens on those streets, that’s a big additional payment. Tack on to that that some of them may be on fixed income, and we’re going to add a mill rate increase?
“We have to keep things in balance here,” he says. “Try to find that balance between our growth agenda and our citizens’ ability to pay.”
Browne cautions that covering operating costs with money from a reserve fund is not a sustainable solution to the rising property tax puzzle and what’s needed are steady revenue streams. But, he notes, council felt comfortable taking cash from the Land Development Reserve because the city has been given an iron-clad guarantee from Municipal Affairs minister, Jeremy Harrison, that the MOG increase will be coming in 2011.
Better late than never, I suppose.
Meanwhile, as council struggled with their revenues, one delegation turned up to the budget meeting with some ideas on how the city could spend its money more effectively. For the second year running, CUPE 21, which represents the city’s outside workers, came out to argue that the city has become too reliant on outside contractors and much of the work handed off to those private companies could have been completed more cheaply in house.
Also for the second year running, CUPE’s concerns were neither questioned nor commented upon by council. I happened to be sitting in the gallery near many of the CUPE representatives and judging by the way they brusquely left the hall after their presentation, my guess is they were less than pleased with council’s display of seeming indifference.
And yet, if CUPE’s numbers are accurate, their claims are pretty compelling. For instance, they point out that last year the city handed off 1000 hours worth of snow removal duties to five private companies which charged $175 to $177 per hour. CUPE 21 claims City of Regina crews could have completed that work for $35 per hour for equipment and $30 to $35 per hour for total wage and benefits costs.
CUPE also claims that if the Fleet Street Landfill vehicle transfer station were operated in house it would have cost $71,600 a year. And yet the city chose to contract that service out at a cost of $156,991 per year.
While no official comment is forthcoming from city staff on CUPE’s analysis, the word from administration is that they are reviewing the union’s figures.
And according to Councillor Browne, who is on the Public Works Committee, if it turns out that CUPE is right in their accounting, he at least would be amenable to the idea of city workers taking on more projects.
“It doesn’t matter to me if we go private or public,” says Browne. “I’m interested in value for the citizen. And if the reality is that with snow clearing for example, in-house can do it cheaper, faster and better, I’m all for that.”
Ultimately, the one thing nearly every delegation and every councillor agreed upon was that they don’t want to see another big mill rate increase next year. But Mayor Fiacco pointed out that leaving the mill rate unchanged this year would be irresponsible as it would curb the city’s ability to maintain its amenities and infrastructure. It would also undermine Regina’s growth agenda.
“The popular thing is to come in at a zero,” says Fiacco. “But we may be popular today but we won’t be popular tomorrow when they ask us why wasn’t the snow removed.”
Bringing in the mill rate increase takes leadership, he argues. “Will we be criticized? Yes, we will be. But we’ll be thanked tomorrow.”