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City council targets 0% property tax increase ahead of budget deliberations

Click to play video: 'Lethbridge city council gets head start on budget talks ahead of review next week' Lethbridge city council gets head start on budget talks ahead of review next week
WATCH ABOVE: City council addressed 2021 property taxes and more in its final meeting before the 2021-2022 operating budget is deliberated next week. Danica Ferris has more on early moves made ahead of the review. – Nov 16, 2020

It’s a head start for city council that councillors hope will provide a clear direction when budget deliberations begin next Monday.

At the final city council meeting before the budget review begins, councillors debated multiple motions that would have implications next week, including whether or not to raise property taxes in 2021.

Read more: Lethbridge city council prepares to review 2021-2022 budget

In a unanimous vote, council set a target for zero per cent property tax and utility rate increases in 2021, asking the city manager to eliminate scheduled increases with amendments to the 2021 operating budget.

Mayor Chris Spearman called the move a “specific target” for council to try and reach in budget deliberations; but that doesn’t mean property taxes and utilities could not still see increases if the numbers don’t work.

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The amendments include the elimination of a 1.8 per cent property tax increase in 2021, which, combined with the 1.8 per cent property tax increase that was cancelled for 2020 leaves about a $6-million shortfall for council to make up elsewhere.

More than $800,000 will also need to be accounted for if council can reach its goal of a flat rate for water and wastewater utilities, as well as commercial garbage collection.

The city also clarified that while the target would be applied to the municipal portion of tax bills, individual properties may see a tax change for other reasons, including a change in property assessment.

Read more: Lethbridge changes 2020 property tax penalty dates in response to COVID-19

Spearman said council is examining multiple possibilities to bridge the gap.

“We’re going to look at a whole range of possibilities for reductions next week,” he said. “The city manager has gone through various departments and asked what a five per cent and a 10 per cent reduction would look like.”

Read more: Condo group asks Lethbridge council for opt-out options as curbside recycling implementation continues

In a separate motion, Coun. Blaine Hyggen proposed four other initiatives seeking efficiencies and cost savings:

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  1. A 10 per cent salary reduction for city council in 2021, for a projected savings of $77,300
  2. Directing the city manager to implement a 0 per cent wage increase for management and non-union staff for 2021 for a projected savings of $513,000 ($403,000 tax-supported, $110,000 utility-supported and self-supported)
  3. Directing administration to implement KPMG-identified workforce reductions over a three-year period, using a combination of attrition and retirement, for a projected savings of $5 million
  4. A 50 per cent reduction in city council’s travel budget, for a projected savings of $56,000

After the initial motion was read, Coun. Belinda Crowson moved to divide and defer; asking that items one, two and four be sent to the budget review next week.

Crowson said the three items were better suited for budget talks. Her motion to divide and defer passed 6-3, leaving just the workforce reductions for council to vote on.

Read more: City council approves nearly $4M in funding allocations for Lethbridge community agencies

In a unanimous vote, the amended motion passed unanimously, reading: “Direct administration to implement KPMG-identified workforce reductions over a three-year period, using a combination of attrition and retirement, to achieve a $5-million savings in salaries and benefits.”

Hyggen voiced his disappointment that council salaries could not be addressed on Monday.

“We have nobody here that wants to show leadership, and I’m sorry, this is extremely frustrating to me,” he said. “Provincial governments have done it, other municipalities have done it — prior to going into budget — because they know already the savings they will have at the start of budget.”

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Spearman said everything will be on the table, including council salaries, when deliberations begin on Monday, Nov. 23.

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