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Saskatoon budget talk begins with property tax increase, affordable housing, police improvement

Click to play video: 'Saskatoon police look for additional funding amid city budget talks'
Saskatoon police look for additional funding amid city budget talks
Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper said they are looking at the opportunity to expand the alternative response officer program – Nov 29, 2022

Saskatoon City Council is meeting over the next three days, beginning Nov. 28, to discuss the city budget, including increases in property taxes, the Affordable Housing Reverse, as well as additions to the Saskatoon Police Service.

Last year, council approved a 3.53-per cent increase for 2023 as part of its two-year budget plan.

Administration now says an additional $2.29 million needs to be added to the budget, resulting in a property tax increase of 0.82 percentage points to 4.38 per cent.

They have identified two options that would reduce the mill rate increase. One involves deferring the Saskatoon light and power return on investment decrease for one year, saving half a million dollars. The other option would be to not expand the transit service in the Aspen Ridge neighbourhood, which would save just over $167, 000.

Cutting both would reduce the proposed property tax increase by 0.21 percentage points.

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“This has come as an additional hit to the small, medium, and large businesses that makes up Saskatoon’s business visitor economy,” CEO of Discover Saskatoon Stephanie Clovechok said.

“I cannot emphasize more how any additional cost to the consumers will be that we are trying to inspire to travel to Saskatoon.”

Clovechok asked the council to keep the property tax rate at 3.53 per cent, rather than increasing it to 4.38 per cent.

City council has made no decisions on the property tax increase at this time.

Administration is hoping to avoid a reduction of the support provided by the City of Saskatoon to community partners in the development of affordable housing.

Currently, the 2022 base operation contribution for the Affordable Housing Reserve is $350,000 per year. The target allocation is $750,000, meaning the reserve is short $400, 000. Administration has recommended that this be fulfilled with a new mill rate contribution of $100,000 and a capital contribution of $300,000.

A new capital project of $245,000 has also been recommended in an administration report for the preparation of the new housing strategy.

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Four members of the public had requested to speak at the council meeting about these issues. Twenty-two comments were submitted on the matter as well.

“The issues with people experiencing homelessness have increased dramatically over the last few years, and the response from various levels of government and organizations is inadequate,” said Saskatoon resident Caitlin Stickney.

“Last week a man’s body was found outside, a few blocks from my home. A few blocks from a hospital.”

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“I hope you will look bravely at what you as a community member are willing to do, and how you can work as a council to be a positive force in caring for and protecting all of our community members.”

Two sources of funding were highlighted that could be used for one-time contributions to the Affordable Housing Reserve and the capital project for the new Housing Strategy: The Neighbourhood Land Development Fund (NLDF) or the Reserves for Capital Expenditures (RCE).

In January 2022, city council resolved $376,066 in returned funds to be reallocated to the Affordable Housing Reserve. However, future contributions from the NLDF are not certain.

Currently, a positive balance is projected from the NLDF of approximately $0.6 million at the end of 2022, which could be used for financing both the Attainable Housing Program and the Housing Strategy.

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The other option was looking into the Reserves for Capital Expenditures (RCE). The RCE has current funds of $2.58 million that will be available for city council use in 2023 if they choose.

“Only if you stay, perhaps, in a suburb and never come through downtown or the west side, could you be unaware of the severity of the situation right now with the unhoused in Saskatoon,” said Saskatoon Pleasant Hill resident Kyle Syverson.

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Syverson suggested warm up busses for the Saskatoon homeless population, as well as public burning barrels to provide immediate relief and shelter while waiting for a long-term plan.

TCU Place, SaskTel Centre, Remai Modern, Saskatoon Public Library, and the Saskatoon Police Service also asked for budget adjustments for 2023.

TCU Place presented a $1-million deficit, due to fewer national events as a result of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sasktel Centre, however, said they will never run a deficit. Remai Modern broke even.

The Saskatoon Public Library is expecting to be on budget but are still asking for more money in the 2023 budget than what was previously approved.

The Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) is asking for an additional $760, 000 for 2023 so they can make their alternative response officer program permanent.

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The alternative response officer program was established in May 2021.

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The SPS currently has six alternative response officers that deal primarily with administrative calls, giving the regular officers more time to respond to violent calls.

“So, we have six alternative response officers currently that’s what we evaluated over the term of last year and we were just simply asking that those officers maintain a permanent position within our budget,” said Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper.

“AROs take up $350,000 increase, so we had funding there available for the pilot of 350, so the total program cost is just under $700,000.”

Decisions are expected to come in the next days of budget meetings.

— with files from Easton Hamm.

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