Council chose to build transit instead of cut taxes Thursday, pledging a half-billion dollars to a rapid bus line to southeast Calgary that may not otherwise have been funded for several years.
With an 8-7 vote, councillors nixed a chance to undo the controversial $52-million tax hike and replace it with a one-per-cent tax cut in 2014.
Instead, Calgarians will have to settle for a budget with a five-per-cent tax increase, a one time rebate that averages $100 per household, and the largest transit expenditure since the west LRT.
The line, running on special bus-only lanes that could be converted to LRT in the future, will stretch from near the South Health Campus hospital to Harvest Hills Boulevard — longer than any existing CTrain line.
While Coun. Shane Keating was branded a turncoat by anti-tax conservatives Wednesday, residents in his transit-starved quadrant hailed him as the delivery man.
“It should definitely ease traffic down in this area,” said McKenzie Lake resident Simon Poole.
He said he normally hates tax hikes if they go to “pet projects.” But he feels this will benefit all Calgarians, particularly those who work or live in the southeast.
“I’ve always felt that southeast Calgary is isolated from Calgary,” Poole said. “It’s like an island, and the only way off is two lanes of the Deerfoot.”
Ryan Wood, a newcomer to Douglasdale, is also intrigued. It takes him 45 minutes by bus to his downtown office, then an hour or more on the train and a bus to get home because his morning route ends too early.
“The bus system they have here is as efficient as it could be without more infrastructure like that,” he said.
Rage had simmered through the year and into the election over the $52 million tax increase council approved this spring, and Keating had said he’d vote to return it in this week’s budget talks.
Because the tax proceeds roll in each year, council found a compromise move: rebate the money on 2014 property bills, and then use instalments from 2015 to 2024 to create a $520-million fund for transit’s “green line.”
“This is not about being left or right. It’s not a flip-flop,” said Keating, who has long denounced the lack of transit to his ward, and lack of available project dollars. “It’s not about hocus-pocus. Or, it’s not even about politics.”
But colleagues expressed frustration they wouldn’t be able to give residents the promised tax relief, but for one year’s reprieve.
“It doesn’t seem to matter how much money we get from Calgarians, we’ll always find a way to spend it,” Coun. Andre Chabot told reporters.
Coun. Ray Jones said council was acting like kids in a candy store, and Ward Sutherland said lower taxes was the real “desperate need.”
The same seven members who voted against the transit decision voted against the entire budget.
Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation upbraided Keating over Twitter.
“It’s amazing how fast a man’s principles and promises can crumble to pork barrelling opportunism,” the lobbyist wrote.
Instead of repealing the past increase to deliver a tax cut, council chose smaller steps to shave down the increase to five per cent from the initially recommended 6.1 per cent. They include an across-the-board spending cut that excludes the police force, a limit to salary increases for non-union staff, and a largely symbolic freeze on council pay.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi sided with the transit plan, and said construction could begin on the project next year or in 2015, depending on whether council found further dollars or a good borrowing plan to help fast-track the project.
Transit had been one of several proposed uses for the $52 million hike, when in the spring council held a broad consultation that several members wound up later saying bordered on ridiculous.
“It’s interesting: after all the rigmarole, this is what we’ve come back to,” Nenshi said. He wondered aloud whether the transit plan would have won comfortably last spring if the debate was simply between building transit or not taking the tax increase adopted through lower provincial property taxes in the first place.
The planned green line goes through the wards of six councillors. Of them, only Coun. Sean Chu voted for a tax cut instead.
“People are not going to be happy,” he said. “But at the same time the transit is needed, yes.”
HOW THEY VOTED
To commit the $52-million fund to transit instead of tax relief
For: Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Jim Stevenson, Richard Pootmans, Druh Farrell, Evan Woolley, Gian-Carlo Carra, Brian Pincott, Shane Keating
Against: Ward Sutherland, Joe Magliocca, Sean Chu, Ray Jones, Andre Chabot, Diane Colley-Urquhart, Peter Demong
WINNERS AND LOSERS IN BUDGET 2014
-Southeast Calgary: the “forgotten quadrant” finally got its day. They watched as west LRT got built, and then northeast’s airport tunnel. But council committed $520 million in taxes for special bus lanes to the south hospital, which can easily be converted to LRT in the future. Without this tax decision, it appears it would have otherwise been several years before much money would have materialized for Calgary Transit expansions. This route goes down Centre Street to Harvest Hills, so a couple parts of the city win.
-Police: Much has changed from the days when Dave Bronconnier was mayor, but others haven’t. Exhibit A: Calgary Police Service has again been insulated from an across-the-board budget trim that all other city departments have been ordered to take. Mayor Naheed Nenshi used to rail about similar decisions when he was a mere civic pundit.
-Arts: Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts got a $315,000 lifeline to offset the end next spring of their provincial operating grant. And when two rookie councillors sought to take that money from Calgary’s arts granting agency instead of city reserves, 11 colleagues drowned them out.
-Anti-tax advocates: Instead of getting a one-per-cent tax reduction next year, they get a five-per-cent increase and a $100 rebate on the 2014 bills, They will rage at Coun. Shane Keating for seemingly reneging on his tax-fighting pledge, tipping the council balance toward spending.
-Non-unionized city staff: Management got hit twice Wednesday. First, council ordered a 1.8-per-cent pay increase next year, which is half what they got in 2013. Next, a moratorium was imposed on overtime pending a review, following the controversial millions they got during the flood.
-Unions: See what just happened to city management wages? You’re next, brothers and sisters. All city contracts will be renegotiated next year, and look for 1.8 per cent to be city hall’s target.
Union leaders often complain about having to accept modest raises while council gets big ones. But councillors took that argument off the table, voting themselves a 2014 pay freeze.