Any cuts made to Saskatoon's budget may be permanent, city manager warns

Saskatoon's Mayor Charlie Clark says the city is working hard to minimize the effects of provincial budget cuts without cutting civic services.

Saskatoon citizens can expect $30 parking tickets, a wage freeze for city employees, and a total 2.55 per cent increase on their property tax bill.

Council spent four hours discussing ways to fight a $9 million shortfall in their civic budget at Monday's meeting. 

"We're trying to find the right balance here in continuing to provide the services that residents value," said Saskatoon mayor Charlie Clark.

"And everybody is finding some cost savings throughout the city and mitigating the impact on residents through taxes."

Last month, the province cut decades-old grants paid to the city by SaskPower and SaskEnergy.

"Everyone does take a bit of an impact in the process but there are no drastic cuts.There are no drastic cuts to to employees or services," Clark told CBC's Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

​Unlike Regina, Clark said he will not consider canceling bus routes on civic holidays to make up for the funding shortfall. 

Looking ahead

Clark said the cancellation of the province's grants-in-lieu program came "out of the blue." He wants to make sure that a more predictable, sustainable revenue sharing model is developed going forward and promised to "hold the province's feet to the fire" during those negotiations.

Clark said the province did not realize the impact pulling those grants would have on cities.

"We're having honest and frank discussions, the dialogue remains open." said Clark.

"I think it's very important that I advocate as strongly as I can on behalf of our citizens but that we do it in a way that is based on facts and evidence,"  he said.

Saskatoon will not use its reserves to balance books

City manager Murray Totland noted Saskatoon spends every penny of its share of Saskatchewan's sales tax on operations, such as garbage collection, snow removal and maintenance in city-owned parks. 

Totland likened drawing on the city's capital reserves to make up this year's revenue gap to taking money from a Retirement Savings Plan to buy groceries.

Councillors Randy Donauer and Zach Jeffries called it a one-time fix for an ongoing issue.

"I don't think it's council's prerogative to go to the $4.5 million we have in a cemetery reserve that's actually been set aside to care for the future of that facility, and say we should be spending that to take care of provincial cuts," said Jeffries.

"That's ultimately what's been suggested here."

Gallery funding questioned

Donauer and Councillor Bev Dubois said they were in favour of freezing city employees' wages, suggesting it was time to cut councillors' travel and communications allowances.

Donauer asked officials to consider deferring operating money for the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, which has yet to open after the Mendel Art Gallery closed in 2015.

"People think there are efficiencies to be found," he said. 

City manager Murray Totland reminded councillors any cuts made this year would likely need to be permanent cuts.

Expect further cuts, city manager warns

"Early indications are we will see a further decline in revenue-sharing," Totland told council members. "There is no real easy or painless way for us to address this shortfall."

 'There is no real easy or painless way for us to address this shortfall.' - Murray Totland, Saskatoon City Manager

To offset the increase, councillors told city officials to reduce fuel expenditures by $500,000 this year, and to look for $250,000 in savings through "energy management".

They also agreed to defer a snow and ice removal levy, which will save $1.2 million.

An additional $1 million will come from squeezing a higher dividend than expected this year from the city's water and wastewater utility. It's not clear whether water rates will be affected.

Cities, towns cannot bill the province

Councillor Bev Dubois inquired about charging Crown corporations rent, acquiring more municipal taxation powers and charging the province for the land where new schools will open in September as options to recover lost cash. 

"It's just not fair we would be paying this," Dubois said.

City officials noted the schools have not opened yet, and no lease agreements for the land have been signed by the province.

Totland noted that the city can charge the province any amounts it chooses but it has no legal way to collect that money.

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