While the estimated property tax hike for 2018 still sits at 3.5 per cent, city staff have been directed to give councillors options to reduce the hike to 2.5 per cent or three per cent.
That was the major outcome of a three-hour city budget meeting Tuesday at Tom Davies Square. CAO Ed Archer said the 3.5-per-cent hike on the $500 million municipal budget is what it will take next year to deliver the same services residents received in 2017. That works out to about $100 a year for a $200,000 homeowner.
He also pointed out that, contrary to what some people believe, Greater Sudbury has the fourth-lowest tax rate of cities in Ontario with similar size.
“It's factually incorrect to state otherwise,” Archer said.
What they were looking for, he said, were the parameters council wanted to allow staff to develop the 2018 budget.
“Council still has full discretion to make changes,” to what they recommend, he added. “We can make the number be anything you like – we can make it zero. But there's a consequence.”
Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh pointed out the city has lost about $10 million in transfers from the province in the last four years, including more than $1 million next year.
“That's over $10 million in four years, but we've maintained the same level of service,” McIntosh said.
“The public perception is that we just increase taxes, increase taxes and hoard the money,” said Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti. “That's not the case.”
Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan said that, while tax rates may be fourth lowest, that doesn't tell the whole story.
“Yes, we're fourth in taxes, but we have to look at income, as well,” Kirwan said.
And the tax rate doesn't include more than seven-per-cent hike in water rates, as well as new and existing user fee increases.
“If we're going to start looking at new fees ... we're looking at hitting a lot of people who can't afford to pay for increased user fees.”
Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac wondered why they would start at 3.5 per cent from the get-go.
“Why not try to cut?” Dutrisac said. “Why not leave it open and tell staff to get a budget of 1.8 per cent or 2? … I can't support this.”
And Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier wanted options to get the increase down, but not by cutting services or hiking costs to vulnerable residents.
“What about doing things differently to allow for (lower increase)?” Cormier asked. “Is there a way to shoot for a number closer to inflation, and still deliver the services. All we're asking for is options.”
After directing staff to shoot for 2.5 and three per cent, McIntosh wondered about the expected 3.9-per-cent budget increase expected from police.
When told that it was because of their plans to renovate their headquarters, she wondered whether it had to be done this year.
“We have buildings that are in far greater need than other buildings,” she said. “Is (the police headquarters) the highest priority need?”
Councillors will get their first crack at the draft budget in the fall, with plans to approve it in December.