Rhino's Ramblings: The 2018 Budget

Well, it's that time of year again, the time when Moose Jaw's City Council sits down to decide how your tax dollars are going to be spent, and this year's affair is already shaping up to be a painful one.

Once again, the city is facing another million dollar shortfall when it comes to the operating budget, meaning another tax increase of 4.05%, if we want to keep city services the same in the coming year.

Although there has been no public announcement yet, it's hard not to wonder whether or not the province's upcoming budget will hold even more cuts than anticipated, just like last year's? 

Last year's surprising deep cuts, in such things as Grants in Lieu (GiL) - what the province pays to the city instead of property taxes - hit hard. It left council scrambling and going back to revisit the entire budget to find savings. It meant one of the latest budgets in this city's history. 

Plus, the tendering process for year two of the twenty year cast iron water main replacement was much later than in most years. It partially contributed to that project extending into November, although other factors likely contributed more though.

It also ended up with a 9% tax increase, plus a solid waste collection fee for picking up your trash.

This year, Saskatchewan's financial woes and austerity budgetary measures mean a whopping 16% impact on the city's bottom line. In the preliminary budget presentation (operating budget, five year capital and 10 year unfunded capital budget), soon to be departing City Manager, Matt Noble, pointed further blame on previous council's actions, pointing out 0% tax increases in the 12 of the past 26 years.

Noble stressed that Moose Jaw's low residential property tax rate, is similar in comparison to other centres nearby, and it leaves me asking, what is in store for homeowners?

The City Manager went further, pointing out how employee wages and benefits account for the lion's share of what the city spends. 

Running the city's utilities (water, sewer and solid waste) as businesses for their customers also came up. Although not mentioned in the preliminary budget presentation, the city's garbage truck fleet is aging, and expensive new units are soon to be needed.

Is this a good time to do what Swift Current did and contract out garbage collection services? It is always a possibility, as it is apparent that our solid waste collection fee mirrors Speedy Creek's past actions, where Matt Noble once also served as City Manager. What is best for the solid waste utility's customers and employees must be looming out there, because it is exactly what Speedy Creek did under Mr. Noble's tenure.

Mr. Noble's talk of running our utilities as businesses needs to be looked at and taken as a serious option, but it would also mean higher water and sewer rates for customers. The utility approach to financing what many see as tax funded services has to be favoured by Mr. Noble, who previously ran Swift Current's city owned electrical utility prior to being their City Manager. 

Despite this; though water and sewer rates are going up and from the preliminary budget documentation, I'm only guessing that's its going to be dramatic. 

Throughout the budget process, I am guessing Administration is going to continue the time honoured principle of comparing Moose Jaw to other centres in the province. 

Although its good to see what other centres have done and it is helpful to use their innovative solutions, it also needs to be remembered that other centres make mistakes. Simply saying we are not as bad as other cities in the Province should not be an excuse for unsharpened pencils.

But when it comes to comparisons this year, most other cities budgets are now complete. 

Taking a look at Swift Current's budget, it is comes with a whopping 13% increase, with almost half of that going towards paying off the city's debt. Coincidentally, Moose Jaw's council is opting for increasing debt dramatically to pay for a rapidly aging infrastructure, which now often sees multiple water line breaks on a daily basis. 

Do we finance our future through debt and keep taxes lower now, but in effect, mortgage our future like Swift Current has done or do we negate financing but instate large property tax increases now? This question looms very large in 2018's budget.

In the end though, we all know that the days of 0% property taxes are now a thing of the past. It just remains to be seen how much lighter your wallet is going to be in 2018.

Budget deliberations kicked off Monday night. MJ Independent has all the updates. 

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