Over the course of this four-part series – which I’ve titled “Reality Check Saskatoon” – we’ll sift through City reports and outside data to paint a fiscal picture of Saskatoon then, now, and in the future. Over the course of the next two to three weeks the series will roll out with:
Part II will look at how Saskatoon reached its current fiscal position;
Part III will compare Saskatoon’s fiscal picture to our neighbouring cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Regina), and
Part IV will look at the path forward as Saskatoon attempts to tackle both its infrastructure deficit and managing its growth.
I greatly encourage you – the reader – to ask questions and debate my conclusions at every turn.
Reality Check Saskatoon: Introduction
Saskatoon is growing and the provincial economy is clicking along at full speed. As every growing city has experienced, there are infrastructure demands to accommodate that growth. However, in addition to our growth Saskatoon also finds itself saddled with a hefty back-log of aging and failing infrastructure – a back-log exacerbated by a succession of City Councils that were more concerned with keeping property taxes low then addressing infrastructure needs in a substantive way for the past 20 years.
But before we dump blame squarely on the lap of City Councils of old – lets remember that every three years (now four) the residents of Saskatoon gave marching orders to their elected officials at and between elections. Long as the mantra of voters been “keep property taxes low”. During the tenure of Mayor Dayday, mill rate increases rarely rose above 2% – with even a few 0% years mixed in.
The combination of a small city without much growth, plus infrastructure that was not overtly showing its age, meant that this approach and no apparent negative side-effects for Saskatoon. Yet, if you talk to long-term residents of some of our older neighbourhoods (i.e. core neighbourhoods) – the deterioration of our infrastructure was becoming quite evident to them at least as far back as the late 1980s.
With the election of Mayor Atchison – who ironically campaigned on “no tax increases” – property tax increases became a yearly ritual as well as a substantial increase in city borrowing. Between 2003 and 2012, the mill rate increased nearly 40%, city borrowing spiked from below $50 million to nearly $400 million, while operating and capital budgets increased by approximately 50% and 200% each.
This increased taxation was coupled with the sudden and rapid growth the City began experiencing in 2007/2008 as our resource economy began to take-off. The demand for housing sky-rocketed – with neighbourhoods like Hampton Village, Blairmore, Willowgrove, Briarwood, Rosewood, and Evergreen exceeding projected build outs by over a decade and still not appearing to let up.
City Council and City Hall were all of a sudden playing catch up on the need to build new infrastructure to accommodate this new growth and an attempt to outfit Saskatoon with attractions worthy of larger cities – River Landing, new Art Gallery, new Police HQ, the South bridge, several new interchanges, and road expansions, etc… Yet, existing infrastructure, most visibly roads, remained massively underfunded despite the new found ability to tax and spend.
The reality of implementing policies and projects to merely catch Saskatoon up to the services a larger Canadian city offers and the need to meet the expectations of a 21st century city started to hit home. City Administration realized that our rate of urban sprawl was fiscally unsustainable and slowly began to change the stagnant thinking pervasive in their ranks. The Waste and Recycling Plan, Downtown Master Plan, Energy Park at the Landfill, Saskatoon Speaks, and the list goes on, were all undertaken and began to jar awake Saskatoonians to the reality of a growing city.
For those who paid attention, warning bells began to ring through the halls of City Hall over the past few years nearly in lock-step with our rapid growth. Audits and reports on our existing infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, water mains, sewers, bridges, and transportation networks were completed and released – painting a stark picture of the aging nuts and bolts of our City. Price tags were assigned – with bills of 140 million plus for roads over 5 years and nearly 900 million for infrastructure backlogs being put front and centre in the run up to the 2012 Civic Election. Perhaps it was the shear size of these numbers but the implications of meeting these fiscal needs has yet to set in amongst the general public.