Fort Smith's water tower in June 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The Town of Fort Smith moved closer toward a five-percent 2023 property tax increase this week as councillors inspected the draft budget for the year ahead.
At a Tuesday meeting, council made minor amendments but did not land on any major cuts. There is still room for more changes before the December 31 deadline by which the budget must be approved.
Councillors will finalize the budget at a meeting later this month. If council later changes the mill rate ratio, which decides how businesses, residents and other groups like governments share that tax burden, that could further shift what each group ends up paying.
Fort Smith faces some significant cost pressures through utilities like heat and power.
Heating the recreation and community centre, for example, is currently costing more than double the $65,000 budgeted annually. From 2023, the town is hiking the budget up to $135,000 to reflect the reality of keeping the centre warm.
Meanwhile, the town is having to budget for back-to-back 10-percent increases in local power rates being sought by the NWT Power Corporation. While that increase has not yet been approved by the territory’s regulatory body, the town says it has to assume the worst.
Those figures left councillors looking to trim back elsewhere.
The town’s advertising budget, for example, is set to be halved to $5,000. Town administrator Cynthia White said much of the old $10,000 budget was not being spent as the town no longer has a newspaper – the Northern Journal having closed in 2016 – in which to spend money advertising jobs.
Councillors are also querying a $35,000 annual grant to the town’s museum, asking whether the territorial government might be able to increase its share of funding.
And cutting back on Christmas lighting – an issue raised at a public meeting last month, as councillors sought residents’ views on where to save money – returned to the table at Tuesday’s meeting.
In 2021, Fort Smith spent nearly $18,000 on Christmas lights despite a budget of $8,500. The town says the NWT Power Corporation used to donate its work to put up the lights but now charges a fee, yet the power corporation must be hired as the lights are strung along the power corp’s poles.
One suggestion is that in future years, the downtown of Fort Smith be prioritized for lighting – and the lights stop in the spot where the $8,500 runs out.
“What if we started at the four-way stop and worked out in four directions until we run out of money?” said deputy mayor Jay MacDonald, only half-joking.
In a similar vein, the town’s Canada Day budget looks set to drop from an initial allocation of $10,000 to $7,500. A $5,000 annual contribution to the programming of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, which sends travelling performers to Fort Smith, will be axed.
The town says it will step up work to actively enforce collection of debts over the next year, while councillors also expressed appetite for non-profits seeking special program grants to use a more formal, competitive application process
On a smaller scale, the closure of the Mary Kaeser Library building – and the library’s relocation inside the community centre – saves the lion’s share of $2,000 in costs related to phone and internet access.
“Ultimately, it’s a five-percent increase,” said White after councillors had inspected the budget line by line for three and a half hours. Yellowknife passed a budget with a similar increase earlier in the week.
Subsidy, garbage set for 2023 decisions
Other contentious issues discussed at last month’s public meeting, like whether to change the seniors’ tax subsidy or shift to less frequent garbage collection, will be further examined in 2023 with no action taken yet.
MacDonald said the seniors’ subsidy – which the town has suggested is becoming unsustainable as the share of seniors grows – warranted a “bigger conversation in the new year” about how it could be “fairly administered.”
White said the garbage shift would require decisions in 2023, if only to ensure a new, upgraded garbage truck arrives by 2025, such is the current backlog in delivery of specialist vehicles amid global supply chain issues.
“I’m anxious to move it forward, but I think we want to ensure that we do it the right way and don’t have the whole community too upset,” said MacDonald.
Some residents had expressed opposition to any watering-down of the town’s current twice-weekly garbage removal schedule, arguing, for example, that wild animals could be attracted to garbage left waiting for collection.
“We’re not the only community in the world that’s surrounded by wilderness and has wild animals,” said White on Tuesday, “and many, many, many, many communities have twice-monthly garbage pickup and twice-monthly composting pickup.
“There are hundreds of communities, possibly thousands of communities in Canada that are in exactly the same situation we are in, and they don’t do garbage collection twice a week.”