City of Yellowknife staff and council say balancing the upcoming budget while keeping tax increases low will be a challenge.
Rising inflation, the continuing impact of Covid-19, and the need for more staff and infrastructure upgrades were all factors as the city released its draft budget for 2022 on Monday.
That budget proposes a tax increase of 13.44 percent, which Sharolynn Woodward, the city’s director of corporate services, said was “a realistic and transparent reflection” of what’s needed to maintain current municipal services and work toward the city’s objectives.
That figure elicited a single-word response from Councillor Robin Williams: “Wow.”
Councillor Julian Morse said while the proposed tax increase may be “a bit jarring,” the final number that councillors approve will likely be nowhere close to 13.44 percent.
Last year’s budget initially proposed a tax increase of 11.92 percent, which council ultimately reduced to 2.5 percent. In 2020, the draft budget included an 8.48-percent tax increase, which councillors whittled down to 1.63 percent.
Mayor Rebecca Alty told Cabin Radio balancing this year’s budget will be “challenging” as residents want more services. She pointed out councillors were able to keep tax increases low in recent years by cancelling some capital projects.
“It is tough to balance all the requests and ensure that it’s financially affordable for residents,” she said. “It’s the balance of making sure the services we deliver are the right ones Yellowknifers want and they’re willing to pay for.”
The proposed tax increase in this year’s budget is high partly due to more than $42 million in spending city staff said is needed to deliver essential services and meet legislative requirements. That includes replacement of the ageing pipe that brings water to the city, new emergency medical dispatch software, expansion of the fire hall, and work to improve the sewage system.
The draft document identifies nine additional staff the city needs to fund in 2022, including four extra firefighters whose hiring is considered a high priority.
Alongside spending pressures, the city faces longstanding underfunding from the territorial government – estimated at around $10 million – and stagnant population growth. Overall, the budget projects the city will receive $98 million in revenue in 2022, while expenditures are expected to total more than $123 million.
Aquatic centre referendum looms large
The biggest item among capital projects listed in the budget is the proposed new aquatic centre, expected to cost more than $20 million in 2022. That project hinges on how residents vote in a referendum, scheduled for November 23, on whether the city can borrow up to $10 million to finance it.
Even if residents vote against borrowing the funds, however, the city will still have to spend money.
City staff said a new aquatic centre is needed as the Ruth Inch Memorial Pool is ageing, its operation and maintenance costs are increasing, and it does not meet accessibility needs nor the demands of residents.
Municipal staff say if the referendum does not pass, the city will lose out on a $12.9-million federal grant for the new aquatic centre that cannot be spent on renovations to the current pool, nor other projects.
Grant White, the city’s director of community services, said if the referendum fails, council will have to consider a number of options. That could include redesigning the aquatic centre to eliminate the need to borrow funds or renovating Ruth Inch Memorial Pool (which would require that the facility be closed for two years).
The city says renovating Ruth Inch could cost more than $40 million, according to earlier estimates, and would have to happen without the $12.9-million grant, which is for a new pool only.
White said even if all work is scrapped and the old pool is not extensively renovated, the Ruth Inch pool would still need changes to comply with human rights requirements.
Members of the public will be able to present their feedback on the draft budget at a meeting scheduled for November 22. Council is scheduled to deliberate the budget between December 6 and 9, and a final budget is expected to be approved on December 13.