Yellowknife residents can expect a 4.37-percent property tax increase in 2023 after city councillors swashbuckled their way through next year’s budget in near-record time.
Council needed just two of four reserved nights – around seven hours of deliberation, so still fairly sedate swashbuckling – to work through the budget and bring down the expected 2023 tax increase.
Heading into the week, the forecast for next year’s tax increase had been 7.47 percent.
City councillors, most of them newly elected, reduced that figure by:
- deleting a proposed arts coordinator position (but investing some of the saved money into arts programming, while creating a path to eventually hire an arts coordinator in future);
- removing some committee spending;
- deleting firesmarting money for 2023 on the grounds that federal cash is coming in 2024;
- deferring the creation of two dispatch positions;
- increasing ambulance fees for some people; and
- reducing the amount of money the city squirrels away.
The city likes to set money aside for future rainy days, cyber attacks or other worst-case scenarios that give administrators sleepless nights.
But councillors decided there is enough money currently sitting in some of Yellowknife’s reserves, specifically an IT-related fund, and cut back amounts due to be transferred in the next year. That decision freed up just over $200,000 that can be used to pay for other things – reducing the tax burden.
$50,000 was deleted that would have funded the capital area committee, a relatively obscure group featuring the GNWT and RCMP that makes decisions about the area of land between the legislature and City Hall. The same funding was also removed last year.
Removing wildfire protection spending in 2023 will save $100,000 after enough councillors decided they could live with the risk.
While city staff said skipping 2023 and essentially waiting two years to do any more firesmarting was “not advisable,” and city manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett said “there is work that should be done and needs to be done in 2023,” only Councillor Cat McGurk opposed Councillor Ryan Fequet’s motion to remove the spending.
“We haven’t been firesmarting Yellowknife for that many years. We’re about to come into a lot of money to really get to tackle the project,” said Mayor Rebecca Alty, referring to a $20-million federal funding package to be split between all NWT communities at risk of forest fires from 2024 onward.
“There is a risk of not doing work for one year … at the same time, our biggest risk is from people having bush fires on Frame Lake,” said Alty. “Not to minimize it – I think it’s important work and I look forward to the big grant we’re about to get.”
Arts, ambulances, amphitheatre
An arts coordinator position that the last council only just slipped into the budget before October’s election was scrapped within a month of the new council’s first meeting.
However, that isn’t the whole story.
$20,000 of the money saved by not creating that position will help fund a series of art shows at the new visitor centre gallery space. Beyond that, councillors said they will wait to see an implementation plan for Yellowknife’s recently adopted arts and culture master plan – after which point, hiring a coordinator may be back on the table.
Elsewhere, the city’s cognitive dissonance over dispatch operations continues.
Every year, city staff ask for more money for dispatch, an area of service over which City Hall and the territorial government are locked in a protracted dispute about who is responsible for what.
Every year, councillors turn down administration’s request for more money.
This time around, council deferred the hiring of two new dispatch positions.
“This is due to timing, really. We want to make sure we make the best decision with the 9-1-1 and city dispatch roles and responsibilities,” Fequet said.
“After we’ve made those decisions, if the city needs more dispatch staff, we’ll consider that.”
Another Fequet motion, to increase medical response fees by 15 percent on January 1, 2023, also passed.
Alty and city staff each observed that some southern cities charge two, three or even four times the city’s rate for an ambulance callout.
At the moment, the fee in Yellowknife is $225 for city residents, $350 for NWT residents who live outside the city, and $400 for anyone else. Alty said the fees hadn’t been increased in a decade or more and lagged well behind some other NWT municipalities.
“It’s not a full cost recovery but I think it’s important that we try to keep pace, too,” the mayor said. City staff will further review the fees this coming year with the possibility of another increase in 2024.
Tuesday’s hustle to the end of the 186-page document followed a comparatively tranquil Monday during which only a half-shell cover for the Somba K’e Park amphitheatre was axed.
At the end of Tuesday’s session, city staff declared the new tax rate expected for 2023 is 4.37 percent, though that remains to be finalized.
Alty, closing the meeting, said the drop in the projected increase was “pretty impressive.”