Yellowknife's City Hall. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
This summer’s evacuation will push back the finalization of Yellowknife’s 2024 budget to February next year, a two-month delay.
One city councillor, Cat McGurk, said during a Tuesday meeting that residents should be prepared for a budget that is “going to look terrifying.”
Even before the wildfires came and Yellowknife emptied out for three weeks, City Hall had been projecting a 10.45-percent increase in property taxes for 2024.
Councillors are being told that every additional $350,000 they include in next year’s budget will mean a further one-percent tax hike – but there is also an urgent need to address issues like the city’s downtown and better prepare for future evacuations.
On Tuesday, councillors discussed their wish list of items to include in the budget.
In past years, that list has been put into a draft budget that comes with a headline-grabbing projected tax increase. Councillors then go through the draft and take things out, which brings the tax increase down.
In 2022, for example, the draft budget proposed a 7.47-percent tax increase. By the time council approved the budget, that was down to 4.37 percent.
However, if you keep stripping things out year after year to keep taxes down, all the items left unaccomplished can catch up with you.
Councillors have been dealing with that spectre for years, trying to balance the need to invest in programs, services and infrastructure with a desire to protect residents who already say the cost of living in Yellowknife is becoming unsustainable.
How much can be reasonably cut from the 2024 draft budget, once it arrives, is likely to become a big debate for the current council.
“As a council, we should be preparing people for that reality – that it’s going to be a very different year,” McGurk said on Tuesday.
Of the draft budget and its projected tax increase, McGurk added: “I’m not afraid of making that number higher, because it’s important. We have to get these things done.”
Street outreach funding question
While no other councillor spoke of the 2024 budget in exactly the same terms, there was a recognition that significant sums are being sought for important items and choices may need to be made.
For example, councillor Ryan Fequet suggested budgeting $2 million for an expanded street outreach program. Fequet says several of the city’s non-profits are banding together to propose a better version of street outreach later this month, and he said the $2 million was a reflection of what that might cost the city.
Street outreach helps vulnerable people who are in distress downtown by giving them assistance like a safe ride to somewhere they can get help. It is used thousands of times each year.
An expanded program is understood to involve incorporating trained paramedics and integrating street outreach with 911 dispatch.
However, $2 million would be a five-fold increase on street outreach’s current municipal funding – and would push the projected tax increase up to more than 16 percent.
Fequet’s suggestion ultimately wasn’t taken up, or at least not yet.
Several councillors said they want to hear directly from the non-profits involved, which is likely to happen at October 23’s meeting, during which any resident can present on what they’d like to see in the 2024 budget.
Deputy mayor Stacie Arden Smith said she’d like to hear from the NWT government about how it will help to fund an expanded program. Mayor Rebecca Alty wants a consultant to devise an operating model for street outreach, with territorial and federal funding then sought.
“I want to make sure that we have clear goals and objectives of what we’re trying to achieve with street outreach,” the mayor said, “because I think, right now, everybody has a different idea of what street outreach is supposed to do.”
Evacuation planning improvements
A separate discussion involved how to pay for the lessons that need to be learned from the summer’s evacuation, which occurred after various levels of government had spent weeks insisting an evacuation by road and air was highly unlikely, bordering on out of the question.
There is little doubt that council understands better plans and communication are needed in future. A request for proposals is already out to find a consultant who will lead the city through a thorough review known as an after-action assessment.
But councillor Tom McLennan said extra money could be spent getting to work sooner on a better evacuation framework.
McLennan said doing some work ahead of the after-action assessment’s formal findings would give council “something concrete to show the public before the next fire season.”
“We need to start showing action,” he said. “We need to start rebuilding trust. From my communication with residents, it’s extremely low.”
Others did not agree. Alty noted that the budget cannot be approved until February, leaving virtually no time to get any such work done ahead of the next fire season.
Councillor Rob Warburton said a discussion of how much money might be needed to do something separate to the after-action assessment had become the equivalent of “throwing darts at a wall,” and a more focused, informed approach was needed.
In a later discussion of the after-action assessment itself, city staff said the aim would be to deliver that review’s findings by the end of June next year at a cost of $150,000.
Other council suggestions likely to be included in the draft 2024 budget are:
$100,000 from the city’s land development fund to ensure area development planning for Kam Lake takes place, rather than being delayed, as has been the case since 2021;
$100,000 from the city’s general fund to give Yellowknife’s destination marketing organization – designed to boost tourism – some money to work with;
$100,000 to be “reprofiled” from homelessness employment to a downtown cleanup program;
all parking fees to increase by 15 percent; and
funding for a public information session on evacuation preparedness ahead of the next fire season.
Council is also considering investing in drought-resistant, low-maintenance vegetation at outdoor city facilities, and allowing companies to acquire multi-year business licences rather than renewing annually.
New timeline for 2024 budget
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, newly installed director of corporate services Kavi Pandoo said the evacuation meant the next budget can’t be drawn up on its usual timeline.
Normally, the final budget is available by mid-December.
Pandoo said staff are still figuring out the final cost of 2023’s fire season and evacuation, which means it’s not yet possible to know how that will affect future budgets.
Meanwhile, work to finalize 2022’s financial statements has also been delayed. Those form “the basis on which we firm up our 2023 actual and 2024 budgeted figures,” Pandoo said, and are a prerequisite before a 2024 budget can be approved.
Pandoo also said his office has ongoing staffing challenges, which is a theme throughout City Hall. In July, the city said it had 36 vacancies.
The new timeline for the 2024 budget is as follows:
January 15, 2024: Draft budget released
January 16-31: Public email feedback to council (no public presentation)
February 5-8: Council deliberations
February 12: Final budget approved
City staff said the budget “should be back on cycle” for 2025.