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'If we can't trim our spending now, when can we': Saskatoon city councillor calls for hiring freeze


Ward 5 city councillor Randy Donauer joined Matt Young on CTV News at Five to provide his take on Saskatoon's projected budget shortfall. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can watch their entire chat using the player above.

The fiscal situation at city hall has generated a lot of reaction with a shortfall projected of around $52 million next year, $23 million the year after that. A report says that even with millions in cuts, city residents could still face a potential property tax increase in the double digits ... When you first saw these numbers, what did you think?

Shock and fear was probably the first reaction. To be honest, I was a little disappointed. We knew coming into this year the budget was going to be tight. The administration had been signalling to us that costs have been rising and revenue hasn't recovered since COVID. And so we knew it was going to be tight.

We actually don't see these reports before the public does and so we only saw them when they got released to the public and the media. I was shocked at how high the forecasted deficit was, and I was quite frankly disappointed that there wasn't a communications plan laying out a plan to deal with it long before we ever get there and letting the public know that.

This is the raw data and I don't think there's a chance of an 18 per cent tax increase or I'm hoping not even a double-digit tax increase next year. So I was a little disappointed with how it was communicated.

They just kind of added up the numbers and sent it out. There wasn't really any plan to calm the fears of the people because this is a forecast for next year. In essence, what they were telling us is they took everything the city does, and what council instructed them to do and everything that the administration wants to do next year — so they took their wish list —and they added it all up.

Then they took what our current forecasted revenue is for next year and those two obviously don't equal. So to me, it's a shocking number, but all it means is they can't have everything on their wish list and I don't think that part was communicated very well. So we've got a lot of big tough decisions to make.

These numbers are being called unprecedented. Is there a place or a department at city hall where you think that too much money is being spent?

Yeah, well, I think it's a combination of things and some of it's new, some of it's not new. Part of it is looking at what council and administrative priorities are. I'm quite conservative, fiscally speaking. I've voted against tax increases over 95 times and I'll be doing so again this year.

I lose most of those votes, almost all those votes, but I'm very much on the page that council and city hall is here to provide the basic core services as [outlined] in legislation. So roads, sidewalks, parks, police and fire, those are our basic core services. What you've seen in Saskatoon and in many municipalities across the country is a creep of what we thought our mandate would be, moving much more into social programs, arts and culture, having grant programs for social projects and that sort of thing.

If you got the money, it's nice to do. Like there's a lot of good things you could do in Saskatoon but we don't have the money and we're doing things that are infringing upon what I would call provincial and federal territory. Things like housing, social assistance, mental health, all those things fall under the purview of the provincial government in conjunction with the federal government. If we step into that realm — they'll let us — we don't have the tax base or the money to pay for those things.

So I think this is a little bit of a wake-up call for council and city hall to, I hope, revert to what our basic core services are, which is what we're actually mandated to provide to our residents. Everybody joins council with the wish list that [they'd] like to do, and to get something taken out of the budget, six people have to stand up in public on TV and vote against it. We haven't been that successful at that in the past few years.

So to be clear, what you're saying is you believe some of the budget lines around social services and arts and culture are where the city needs to look at, at least partially for cuts, because you believe that those are things that should be handled by different levels of government, be it the federal government or the provincial government or something like that. Is that accurate?

For sure. I would actually say because of the situation we're in, if it's not a basic core service, I think everything's on the table right now.

Jason Aebig, with the Chamber of Commerce, said on this program, quote, 'We're going to have to eliminate mid-management positions.' There are some who think there need to be straight-up layoffs or trimming of city hall staff. Is that something you think that city council in some form eventually needs to look at? Yes or no?

Yeah, I think everything's on the table Matt. I do. I think we need to look at it. If can I qualify that — I'll go back probably five or six years ago, we had a budget where the administration was asking for almost 100 people. I tried very hard then, I don't even know where we put 100 new employees. But I tried very hard to trim that down or eliminate the new employees. I wasn't successful, only a couple of councillors voted with me. In our last two-year budget cycle in 2020 the administration asked for 90 or 95 new employees and there was a motion to eliminate all those. We didn't get the votes for that.

There were several motions to reduce the amount of new staff. This year, something I'm I'm going to challenge is they're asking for 50 new employees next year and I forget how many it is the year after I think it's 20. I don't understand, if we can't trim during the time of a global pandemic, which was two years ago, or in a year like this where we're still trying to recover from a global pandemic, and our residents are just trying to refinance their mortgages and keep their homes — if we can’t trim our spending now, when can we? So 50 new employees in a year like this shocks me. I want to focus on not adding to the problem and if I can get council to the place where we're not adding (staff) year after year to the problem, then we can look at maybe what the resources are at city hall and whether there can be trims there.

I know there's a motion on the floor, that I supported already, to look at the number of management positions and mid-level managers that we have at city hall and we've already been asking about how many employees we have compared to other cities. So I think everything's on the table right now. For starters, I'd like to get an agreement that we don't need any new employees next year. There should be a hiring freeze.

I always give the last 30 seconds to our guests. Is there anything else that you wish to add?

I don't think there's an appetite for an 18 per cent tax increase by any of your city councillors. I think we probably are on different pages as far as where we want to end up. You know, a group of us said we want it to be under four per cent. I don't think everybody's on that page. That motion didn't fly. We've got our work cut out for us to do a bunch of trimming over the summer here. I do think we'll make progress. But I think your councillors quite honestly need feedback.

From our residents who we work for, who own this corporation, don't be afraid to reach out to us and tell us where you think we should be spending or not spending your money because it will all be decided in the end of the year in November, December when budget comes around. But these pre-budget meetings will help us set that up. Top Stories

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