Budget 2019: The Building Blocks to a Great City
Going into these budget deliberations I had three priorities: investing in the basic services and infrastructure that citizens rely on every day, creating higher quality of life for individuals and families, and stretching the value of tax dollars through problem-solving, partnering with different groups, and making investments in the short-term that will pay off in the years and generations to come.
I want to be transparent about the decisions I make, so I hope this post explains my priorities and how they fit together strategically. I won’t be able to cover everything, but for an even deeper dive you can check out saskatoon.ca/budget for more information about past and future budgets of the City of Saskatoon.
In the 2019 Budget we are still managing the impacts of reduced funding from the province, and there is a constant push to be less reliant on property taxes. This does not make the budget process any easier, but it does make it more important. We have to continue building on the momentum of our city to make us an even more attractive community where everyone benefits.
Getting the Basics Right
The 2019 budget provides more funding than what has been given in previous years to core services, such as:
- $350K more for parks, to improve play structures, pathways, and irrigation
- $300K more for bridges, to help ensure that these vital assets remain in good shape in the years to come
- $100K more for sidewalks, to improve the accessibility and safety of our city
- $200K more for snow and ice removal, to better respond to extreme weather events
- $200K more for Transit buses, to help have our fleet up-to-date and helping citizens get around the city
When I started as a City Councillor, roads were the number one issue that came up and they were a perpetual source of frustration. The conditions of our roads reached a state of crisis, and City Council at the time made a decision to implement a dedicated road levy in 2014. We raised taxes, but we told people that there was a reason for this move. For years (and if not decades), road maintenance was underfunded and we had to address this situation.
Since 2014, there have been many improvements to help fix up aging neighbourhoods and to invest in roads throughout the city. This means that the average roadway treatment has improved from occurring once every 83 years to once every 18 years. This program continues to make improvements, and we’re continuing these investments in the 2019 budget. We’re at the stage where much of our work can be preventative, so instead of filling a pothole we can treat the road to prevent the potholes in the first place.
To be the city that gets it right, we have to invest in all of our infrastructure and not push these problems to the future.
Over time, these investments will have impacts just like the increased funding for roads did, improvements that we can actually see with direct returns to the people of Saskatoon.
The second piece is to fund improvements to the quality of life for residents. These sorts of investments make Saskatoon a city with vibrancy, a city that’s fun to live in and with facilities and amenities for people of all ages to enjoy.
One of the positive trends in investing in quality of life is the recent move by the City to partner with other groups, such as:
- $4M contribution to Merlis Belsher Place at the U of S, less than 10% of the costs of the building. This project gave the city its first new ice pads in 20 years and a new hub for the community.
- $6M into Gordie Howe Bowl—a $42M facility—and we’ve already seen significant enhancement to that space with more improvements planned.
- $2M to the Children’s Museum with so that they can thrive in their new space in the spring of 2019
- Other projects are in the queue for funding and partnering, such as a permanent facility for Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan and a possible water park on the river.
This budget helps to make these partnerships possible.
Winter City Strategy: One of the projects that picked up a lot of momentum last year is Saskatoon’s Winter City Strategy. While plowing, grading, and sanding intersections are more ways just to manage winter, this strategy is a way to really embrace the season. The Strategy looks at accessibility of the city during the winter months, overcoming some challenges of winter to create a more vibrant economy, and taking advantage of the opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Green Spaces: The 2019 budget also makes investments in some of our city’s most treasured assets: our green spaces. Not only is the parks maintenance budget going up this year, but we’re also making significant investments in the City’s urban forest, something that I know so many people in our city value, and something that is vulnerable due to an increased threat of pests destroying trees. There is also funding for the Green Infrastructure Strategy, so the growth of our city can complement existing green spaces. And the City is continuing to fund an institution that really makes Saskatoon what it is: the Meewasin Valley Authority, so that they can continue to do trail development, education, and conservation work.
Stretching the Value of Tax Dollars–Both Now and in the Future
One of the most common questions that I get as mayor is about how the city is trimming its own spending or how we’re maximizing the impact of tax dollars. I agree that this is important and something that we need to continually assess, and the 2019 budget highlights some of the progress in this area.
Cost-Savings Innovations: A budget needs to rest on cost-savings, and there were $4M of inflationary costs that were absorbed by different parts of the City. Every division in the City is striving to find efficiencies and improve processes. For example, new techniques of plowing Circle Drive get the job done faster and save the City $300-500K annually, equipping City vehicles with GPS to improve routes saves about $500K a year, and Transit scheduling has been made more efficient and this saves $200K annually.
Partnerships: The partnerships in recreation and culture I mentioned before are really maximizing the impact of tax dollars through the help of the volunteers, the private sector, and generous donors. The new facilities show the power of these partnerships and what can happen with outside-the-box thinking.
MOU with the University of Saskatchewan: Over a year ago, the City and the U of S signed the most comprehensive agreement in Canada between a city and a university. It covers land development, joint research, student opportunities, sustainability, and joint infrastructure projects. We’re putting just $50K to further some ways to collaborate, but we’re expecting big results to harness the innovation and brainpower of the university and leverage it for the community as a whole. Stay tuned as this develops.
Efficiencies through Technology: Over the course of 2017 alone, tech improvements and efficiencies saved the City over $800K. The 2019 budget makes investments into a new enterprise resource planning system which will create more efficiencies, saving time for staff and making processes simpler for residents.
Growth Plan: One of the biggest ways we can save money in the long run is by growing our city in a more sustainable way—both environmentally and financially. The 2019 budget makes investments in the City’s Plan for Growth, the way that we will increase density in the city’s centre so that we can better use existing infrastructure and decrease the need for new infrastructure. Our city will continue to grow, and we have to make sure that we’re setting ourselves up for success in the future.
By addressing the challenges that we’re facing as a city head on, a focus on core services, quality of life, and efficiency can help us become the city that gets it right.