Yellowknife’s 2023 budget strives for sustainability, new city councillors learned on Monday night when city administration shared the first draft budget for the upcoming year.
The budget proposes a tax increase of 7.47 percent, plus an 11 percent increase on waste management services – landfill tipping fees and the waste management portion of utility bills – and a three percent increase on user pay programs. Water bills are not expected to increase.
Sharolynn Woodward, the city’s director of corporate services, said earlier in the fall 2023 draft budget’s expenditures would be as low as possible, saying there was “not a lot of room for bells and whistles.”
This week, she reiterated the budget focuses on necessary operations and maintenance, and capital projects, and programming.
Justifying the seven percent proposed tax increase, she it’s “very good to have reasonable stability in the numbers in terms of tax increases” so that the city can keep up with expenses.
“We have learned over time that when we have a tax decrease or zero percent increase, we’re simply not able to keep up with everything. Unfortunately, a lot of what gets cut first is maintenance. And now as we’re starting to take a more asset management-centric view of things, we realize that it’s just a short-term measure that we will pay for down the road,” she said.
That’s in part what has led to council playing catch-up last year. In 2022, residential property owners faced a 9.04 percent increase (though commercial property owners received a 2.27 percent increase). In 2021 and 2020 increases were 2.5 percent and 1.63 percent, while those initial budgets proposed even higher tax increases than what is being proposed this year and were whittled down through different means.
Woodward cited the city’s new aquatic centre, fire hall expansion, and submarine water intake line as big capital expenses that will impact the city’s budgets over the next few years. Administration is recommending the city spend nearly $68 million on capital investments in 2023, followed by around $39 million in 2024 and 2025, with a large chunk of the money going to the aforementioned projects.
The city expects to receive nearly $112 million from property taxes, user charges, and government grants, land sales, and investment income. It wants to spend $153 million – mostly on capital projects, operations and maintenance, wages and benefits, and amortization.
Woodward said while this might appear the city is planning to spend more than it will receive, “when amortization and debt repayments are considered, along with the recommended use of money from a couple of funds, the difference is really only $420,000.
“It sounds like a big number, but it’s 0.275 percent of the city’s total expenditures – so the budget as presented is essentially considered to be balanced.”
Woodward also said inflation, broken supply chains, a changing workforce, impending mine closures, the housing crisis, and the city being underfunded by the territorial government are also all impacting this year’s budget. And of course, there are the things residents want.
“There’s no doubt that citizen expectations are expanding and growing, especially around things like accessibility, reconciliation, and social issues,” she said, but noted while Yellowknife’s needs are growing, its population isn’t, and so there is no additional tax revenue coming in to cover the increasing costs costs of what residents want, as well as things that are needed, like looking after aging infrastructure.
It’s not all negative though, Woodward said, noting there are signs tourism is returning to the city and that downtown revitalization has begun, in addition to other ongoing residential and commercial developments which could bring in more tax revenue in future years.
Steve Payne, one of the few returning city councillors, said he felt the previous council was getting thrown under the bus for the steps they took to reduce property tax bills.
“In the past, we’ve done what we had to do to keep the people in the community happy, and ultimately we answer to them,” he said.
On November 28, residents will have the chance to present to council their feedback on the draft budget at a council meeting. Council will also be holding lunch hour sessions in the council chambers for the public on November 15 and December 6, and will be at Walmart on November 12 from 1-3pm and at Co-p on November 19 from 1-3pm doing public engagement.
Council will then spend the first week of December deliberating the draft budget before approving it on December 12.