City Council Highlights
Below are some of the big decisions that City Council made in November 2018.
Planning for a Downtown Arena District
This week City Council made another step forward in the replacement of SaskTel Centre and signalled that a new arena should be built downtown.
We didn’t approve the construction of a new facility (and this won’t happen for awhile), but we did begin making a plan for the future. We are making crucial decisions in the months to come about Bus Rapid Transit, North Downtown development, River Landing Phase II, Idylwyld Drive and others. Now is the time to ensure these decisions are made with a future Arena/Convention district in mind, so that all the pieces fit together to make a great downtown for generations to come. These next steps will involve many stakeholders and community discussions in developing and implementing this plan.
Background and rationale
Back in March, City Council received a report that said that both SaskTel Centre and TCU Place were nearing the end of their useful life. This doesn’t mean that the structures aren’t sound, but it means that the buildings are not able to best serve the demands placed on them. For SaskTel Centre, the roof is very low for different concerts, the kitchen and dressing room spaces are inadequate, and the concourses are very narrow to accommodate visitors. There is an option to renovate these facilities in order to keep attracting performances, but the costs for SaskTel centre alone would be over $100M and it wouldn’t add that many extra years of life to the facility. Because of this, building a new structure makes the most sense.
Over my years on Council I have always said that the next time we build an arena it should be downtown. Arenas and convention facilities, if done right, can play a key role in bringing investment and vitality into a downtown – it can bring activity to an area throughout the week, not just on event nights.
One of the largest pieces to this puzzle is figuring out the financing plan for such a facility. Although there is a growing public interest in a downtown arena, I don’t mistake this for a widespread appetite to fund this project solely through property taxes. The creation of a final funding plan is not necessary at these early stages, but we have already begun exploring different ways of paying for this, and more information on this can be found online.
Principles for Funding Waste Management
Last month City Council decided that we would implement a city-wide year-round curbside organics collection program for single-family homes. It was also decided that organics would be collected every second week, and that garbage would be collected on alternate weeks.
This month City Council decided on a funding plan for both of these services: garbage collection will move onto your utility bill and organics collection will be paid for by property taxes. There will be three different cart sizes for garbage collection, so this system will create variability for citizens so that those who produce more waste pay more, and those who produce less waste pay less. This system also is set up to be more affordable than the initial proposal of having everything paid for with a utility, especially for those with properties assessed at a lower value.
Why was this change needed?
These decisions are responding to very real problems that need to be addressed. The current waste management system in Saskatoon is broken and the problems will only get worse into the future. Our system has been perpetually underfunded, and we were having to continually borrow from reserves in order to balance the books. Additionally, the amount of waste that we were diverting from the landfill is the second lowest among major Canadian cities. This means that not only were we underfunding waste, but we were also setting ourselves up for a huge expense in the future of having to build a new landfill (and increased operating costs of hauling garbage to a location further away from the city).
The impacts are real
The creation of the new organics collection program and the new way of funding garbage collection is not something that I take lightly. I understand that these decisions are causing some resentment and anger in the community, so I am wanting to be as transparent about why these decisions were made and why I voted the way I did on this important and complex matter. Unfortunately, when it comes to fixing our waste management issues, there is no magic wand to wave to solve all of our problems. The failures of our current system are costly, and pushing these costs onto future taxpayers is not a way to fix the problem, it’s only a way to avoid it. If we wanted to maintain our current waste management system and way of paying for it, we would need to increase property taxes by 2% plus start preparing for a new landfill, and this was shown to be the more expensive option going forward 50 years. This would have been investing in a broken system, and I was not interested in doing this.
Precedent for change
The decisions to implement an organics collection program and to have different sizes of garbage bins have been successful in other jurisdictions in decreasing the amount that gets sent to the landfill. Our administration has researched these programs extensively and we’ve done engagement to figure out what sort of system will work well with the realities of Saskatoon.
So what does it cost?
One of the things that I heard loud and clear when preliminary costs for a unified organics/waste utility were announced a couple of months ago was that the costs were not palatable, especially for people living on a fixed income or on social assistance. We took advantage of a couple of different policy options to lower the cost of a utility, such as paying for organics through property taxes and not paying for the construction costs of Recovery Park through the utility.
Will my taxes go down?
The initial proposal was to have both organics and garbage be paid for as a utility, which would have resulted in an estimated 3.5% property tax decrease. City Council’s decision to have the Organics program funded by property taxes instead of a utility means that there won’t be a reduction in taxes, because of the costs to run the organics program.
While this does cost more up front, over the next 30 years this approach will save an estimated $5 million a year in reduced landfill costs, in particular in avoiding having to build a new landfill. This means addressing a challenging problem today, rather than leaving a much more expensive problem to our children and future City Councils.
This means that there will be no significant changes to property taxes as a result of waste services (because although garbage is off property taxes organics has been added), and that there will be monthly costs of $6, $8, or $11 for garbage (depending on cart size). At this time, these costs are only estimates, and these costs will become final when the Request For Proposals comes back.
These changes are just for single-family homes, and in the coming months decisions will be made on the future of multi-unit (apartments, condos) and industrial/commercial/institutional waste collection.
Low Emissions Community Plan
This month City Council moved forward with a vision for how the City of Saskatoon can lower our emissions and how we can facilitate this happening in the community as a whole.
As mayor, I get the opportunity to visit schools and to meet with students of all ages from across our community. Whenever I do this—and without fail—the largest issue that is brought up is caring for our environment. For many of us, the issue of a changing climate is too daunting or too difficult to address, but our younger generations are pushing us on this issue. For a city like Saskatoon, one of the highest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita, this push becomes all the more important.
I believe that we need to be courageous on how we move forward on this, and as the world moves to being low carbon, I don’t want Saskatoon to be left behind. It’s time that we start challenging this dichotomy between the economy and the environment, and instead see the opportunities for one in the other.
Another important fact that comes through with this plan is the reality that the spending and planning for a Low Emissions Community is not a separate project that involves funding standalone projects. The vast majority of the initiatives involve putting a sustainability lens on much of what we are already doing. From managing and directing growth, to creating transportation options, to building design, and determining what kind of equipment to buy.
When a representative from the Saskatoon Environmental Advisory Committee came to speak to Council about this, she said that when she began her engineering career, the idea of safety was viewed as an ‘extra’—as something that was nice to have, but that wasn’t necessary. Now, we would never view safety as an ‘extra,’ but as crucial to how decisions are made. The same needs to happen for environmental issues, in that we need to put an environmental lens on all of our decisions, just like a safety lens.
There is already a momentum building in our community on this front, with everything from more households opting for solar or for innovative and efficient building methods. Changing to LED lighting in a few of the Leisure Centres is not only saving energy (and therefore money), but also improving the lighting in the space for patrons and decreased maintenance costs (more information on this change can be found in an online report). This goes to show that this work isn’t impossible, and that there are steps that we can take to move forward for our community and citizens.
Funding for Optimist Hill at Diefenbaker Park
Saskatoon City Council has put additional $100K of funding towards the Optimist Hill project in Diefenbaker Park. This project is such a great example of Saskatoon’s community spirit and the impact that we can make when the City partners with different groups. This hill started as a dream and a vision many years ago, and this winter it will be open!
This project ties into the City’s Winter City Strategy, our plan for creating a community that can thrive and where citizens can have a high quality of life for all seasons of the year. You can learn more about how we’re trying to embrace winter on the Winter City Strategy webpage.
Councillor and Mayor Remuneration
Back in 2014, Saskatoon City Council established the Saskatoon Municipal Review Commission (SMRC) to consider the sorts of issues that City Council legally has jurisdiction over, but that making a decision on can be awkward and put members of Council into a difficult situation. These areas are election rules, the code of conduct for members of City Council, and the compensation of members of City Council. The goal was to have independent and expert advice so that Council could avoid conflicts and messy situations.
The SMRC provides this independent and expert advice to Council on these matters, but its decisions are not binding and the ultimate authority rests with City Council. For the issue of remuneration, the Cities Act—the piece of provincial legislation that governs and oversees all of the cities in Saskatchewan—actually explicitly does not allow City Council to delegate the final decision making of councillor remuneration to an external body, and so this decision ulitmately has to be made by Council at a public hearing meeting.
The SMRC recommended that when the federal government made changes to the way that municipal elected officials are taxed (changes happening in 2019), that there should be a change to how the salaries of the mayor and councillors are calculated (recommendation 5 in their report).
City Council decided to adhere to the recommendations of the SMRC, and this means that there is an increase to the salaries of myself and the councillors. However, this is not an increase in take-home pay because of the changes by the federal government to their taxation rules. These changes allow the City of Saskatoon to adhere to the intentions of the formula for how the mayor and councillors are paid by tying this to a salary of the provincial cabinet minister, a formula that has been in place since 1980.