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Back  |  December 05, 2014  | 


I haven't written an op-ed in the Calgary Herald for over a year, so the passing of The City of Calgary's new four-year budget and business plan seemed like a perfect opportunity to return. Here's my column as it appeared in today's newspaper.

This week, after six days of pretty intense debate, your city council passed its four-year business plan and budget, with a final vote of 14-1. Before I tell you a bit about what the budget means to you, it's helpful to step back and take a look at the process.

First, why is it that you never see such intense scrutiny of a federal or provincial budget? After all, over 90 per cent of the taxes you pay go to the provincial and federal governments (and Calgarians, as a whole, send nearly $4 billion a year to the provincial government, and over $11 billion a year to the federal government, than we get back from either of those governments).

The answer is two-fold: first, your municipal government holds itself to a very high level of transparency and accountability. We started discussing this business plan and budget in January, and more than 24,000 of you participated in helping to build it - online, at public events, even on the Engagement Bus. You told us what you wanted more of, what you wanted less of, and how we should pay for it.

Second, the city calculates our taxes and budgets differently than other governments. Our only source of tax revenue is the property tax. I'll save the lecture on why this tax is regressive and unfair for another time, but allow me to explain that the city uses a revenue-neutral process, meaning that we don't get any benefit from increases in property values - the tax rate is reset every year to ensure that the dollars raised are the same as last year.

This means that, to cope with inflation and growth, we must explicitly change the tax rate. This is unlike the other governments, who automatically get more: if your income goes up, your provincial and federal taxes go up. If more people buy stuff, the federal government gets more GST.

Your city council has also chosen to have the budget discussion in public, live on TV and the web, with every senior manager coming to council to defend every budget line - talking about what they do and what value they add to the community.

And do they ever add value. In the recent city satisfaction survey, 79 per cent of you were satisfied with city services (up from 68 per cent in 2009) and 65 per cent said you get good value for your tax dollar (up from 49 per cent in 2009).

So, what's in this budget? First, know that your city is lean and efficient. The budget is full of benchmarks comparing our work to other governments and to the private sector.

A few random examples: Calgary's labour cost in fleet services is 20 per cent below the Calgary market. The number of water main breaks is the lowest of any major city, and our wastewater treatment costs are far lower than places like Toronto and Winnipeg. Our road costs per lane kilometre are the lowest of any major city.

But we can be better. We are undertaking zero-based budget reviews of all our departments and are already seeing savings in places like roads and parks. In addition, this budget contains over $50 million in efficiency savings. We continue to make structural changes to reduce energy use and create a more financially sustainable city.

In this budget, you'll see a number of positive changes, including the launch of the Green Line Transitway and introduction of four-car CTrain service, replacement of two major bridges, building three interchanges, and the widening of McKnight Boulevard, new fire stations, and new police, fire and bylaw officers, as well as new and refurbished parks, recreation centres and arenas to keep up with growth.

And you get all that for the lowest property taxes of any large city in Canada.

- Mayor Naheed Nenshi ​

Categories: Budget; Columns; Better economy; Even smarter City Hall

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