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Saskatoon business leader says city should not compare its spending to other municipalities

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As city councillors ready for marathon budget discussions, a business leader says it's time for to stop looking to other cities to judge Saskatoon's spending.

In June, Chief Financial Officer Clae Hack made a surprising announcement months before deliberations were set to begin where he revealed a $52.4 million funding gap in 2024, and a $23.2 million revenue gap in 2025, largely attributed to inflationary pressures. If left unmitigated, residents could have been looking at a property tax hike of 13 per cent.

"Clearly, this is not the reality anybody wants to be facing," Hack said at the time.

This prompted the city to hold a series of "special" budget meetings from June to September to look at the finances and recover as much of the shortfall as possible.

"This is brutal. This is absolutely not the time that we want to be having to contemplate these kind of cost pressures and inflationary pressures," Mayor Charlie Clark said at a June meeting.

By the end of the special budget meetings, councillors removed $21.9 million of the shortfall in 2024 and $18.8 million for 2025 -- resulting in property tax increases of 7.22 per cent and 5.58 per cent, respectively, as a starting point for Tuesday.

Most of the spending, around $22 million, was delayed for future years. Other savings were found by budgeting less for inflation and in some cases, adding more costs for residents by taking steps like expanding paid-parking boundaries and hiking parking rates.

Council will be tasked with finding even more savings by Thursday, and Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce CEO Jason Aebig is optimistic about keeping taxes low.

"We're now at the end, we're in the final stretch of what has been a budget marathon," he said. "So we're hopeful that city council can push through the pain of the next two or three days."

Looking back at the historical average of tax hikes over the past 20 years, Aebig is hoping the city wouldn't consider anything more than a four per cent property tax increase.

"I think that I think that's probably as good as we're gonna get," Aebig said. "Having said that, there is a fundamental structural issue here that our city is going to have to deal with."

Regardless of decisions made this week, Aebig said the city needs to think wholeheartedly about how many people are on staff, and financial commitments to match federal and provincial projects.

"This notion of free money and matching money from other levels of government that have the capacity to raise revenue in a way that we don't," Aebig said of government projects that can become a permanent drain on the city's finances.

A recent staffing review from the city auditor showed that over the past five years, the cost of full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs per resident rose from $891.40 to $989.30 — an increase of 11 per cent. However, after adjusting for inflation, the auditor said the cost per resident actually decreased by just over two per cent.

The city's FTE per 1,000 population rate is at 13.74. The review found Saskatoon's FTEs per thousand residents, "fell slightly below the midrange when compared to some other municipalities."

Aebig doesn't care to compare Saskatoon to Winnipeg or Calgary.

"Those comparisons are completely unfair. I think all the only conversation we have to have here is what is the right size for our city's workforce to deliver the programs and services we need and want at the most affordable price. Period," Aebig said.

As the city mulls over one of its most contentious budgets in recent years, Aebig is encouraging council to look at the organizational structure of the city.

"This path is not sustainable," he said. "It's not acceptable to the vast majority of people who are actually having to cut a cheque to pay for these rate increases." 

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