Council Approves Relief for Calgary Businesses

Small businesses, we have heard you. Please know that in no way was I voting to silence you when we voted on opening up the start of the meeting for public hearing – I just wanted to move forward with approving the budget reductions and subsequent tax relief that you have rightly demanded. I appreciate everything you shared with us yesterday morning, but I simply wanted to get to business and get this done for you. This is an issue that Council has been facing for several years and a number of proposals were debated this year. It’s awful that it took us this long, and Calgary businesses are rightfully upset. When I announced this proposal last week, I received many comments along the lines of it being too late, too little, why not months ago. There were even questions asking when Council will consider cutting spending, despite this proposal making $60 million in cuts over half a year.

I get that people are frustrated, but Council has acted. We will continue to be criticized for not acting quicker, and rightly so. I wish it had been sooner, and I know most people out there do as well, but we have created a cut package that will lead to non-residential property taxes for those who experienced increases to fall below 2018 tax levels. We are reducing our operating budget by $60 million. Yes, I understand that our operating budget is substantial, but we can’t simply do a Thanos-snap and evaporate half of the budget. Calgary is a large city, both in population and in area. It costs a lot to service our footprint. That being said, there are absolutely savings that can be found, while still providing services that Calgarians expect – though I can’t pretend that there won’t be impacts.

This proposal will provide relief to Calgary businesses that have been screaming for it. It includes actual cuts to the budget, which will be included on a go-forward basis. This is money that we don’t have to find next year. We will be able to look for additional savings as we gear up for the One Calgary budget adjustments in November to find further relief on a go-forward basis. However, this proposal was not overly reliant on one-time funding sources in comparison to the competing proposal that was presented and will not simply kick the can down the road and we can hopefully avoid this exact same conversation next year.

It still relies on $70.9 million in one-time funding, but that’s a heck of a lot less than the $120.9 million that was proposed. I will work with my colleagues in November to find those one-time funds in budget reductions so we can end our reliance on one-time funding sources to provide relief for our small businesses and ensure that these tax reductions are permanent.

In total, we have committed to providing $130.9 million in tax relief to non-residential property taxes without increasing residential property taxes. I know there are still concerns out there regarding residential property taxes, and I hear you. I need to reiterate that Calgary has some of the lowest property taxes in the country. The only cities with lower property tax rates are Vancouver and Toronto, but they can have significantly lower rates as their average home prices are three times and two times higher than Calgary’s, respectively.

Finally, I will address a few comments I have received regarding my remarks toward the other proposal brought forward. If any Councillor brings a proposal forward, that has been made up on the spot, and is just throwing something out there for the sake of throwing it out there, I’m going to call it out. If a strategy I have been working on with my colleagues and with Administration, that I have done my due diligence on, and its’s going to be called half-baked and phoney-baloney in the media, then I’m going to counter with those same comments when something is brought forward that clearly has not been thought through. We on Council have a difficult job, but it becomes even more difficult when Councillors don’t bother to do the background work, don’t work with Administration, and don’t work with their colleagues. We can’t possibly be expected to vote in favour of something that we are seeing for the first time on the floor of Council. Doing so would be bad governance. Acting in this manner and running to the media is bad governance and it’s an absolute disservice to Calgarians. We are here to govern, to lead, and to provide sound direction to Administration. Getting upset that others have proposed a larger cut package than what you have presented and then deciding on the spot to attempt to double it, written in a manner so poorly that it could have resulted in cuts below what had already been proposed, and simply saying “rock and roll” is a terrible way to lead, to present yourself, and to represent Calgarians. And it’s certainly not sound direction.

With that said, here is the video from Council of my opening and closing remarks, along with my prepared remarks (though admittedly I did not say everything verbatim):

Opening Notice of Motion

Good morning your Worship. First of all, I need to state that while I am introducing this motion, it is a Council motion. This motion reflects work that started weeks ago, under the leadership of Councillor Colley-Urquhart who, with myself, Councillor Demong and Councillor Chahal, started drafting thee notices of motion. Two of which we were able to bring to Council, one did not make. She’s brought a copy today, if Clerks can hand it out. We saw Councillors Woolley and Farrell identify this tax burden 2 years ago. Unfortunately, it did not rectify itself as we had hoped due to the continued downturn in the economy. But even beyond that work, this is a collaborative motion that involves, at the very least, every single person who has their name at the top of this and some who are not. I also know that this has been an issue and that this motion has been a long time coming – too long in the eyes of Calgarians, and they are absolutely right.

The tax shift did not just sneak up on us. We as a Council have gone through this several times and came up with band-aid solutions the past several years, hoping, that the city would rebound, and the federal government would get our badly needed pipelines built. This year we’ve been through so many motions to provide tax relief from Councillors Gondek, Demong, Woolley, Mayor Nenshi, and there’s probably others I’m forgetting which all had excellent points but we collectively could not bring parts of each together that is what this Notion of Motion is.

This has been a Council misstep, not getting this sorted out sooner. We as a Council have failed our small business community and they have had every right to hold our feet to the fire. If I can your worship, I would like to take the time to thank them for their advocacy, for showing up this morning, and most importantly, to thank them for their patience and apologize to them, sincerely on behalf of Council that it has taken this long.

There have been good plans presented before, with good points, that we as a Council could not agree on in whole and we couldn’t pull everything together. As I said before, this is not a Keating plan – I’ve just used my skills and abilities to bring the majority of Council together. To work collaboratively, rather than going it alone. On past plans, no one wanted to make any concessions, no one would bend, no one would compromise. On this very motion, I was on the verge of making that very mistake, but some involved had the good sense to talk me down and remind me that this was the very issue I was fighting against, and I had the good sense to listen.

It is not nor ever be my style to play the blame game, I am somewhat disappointed we have in some cases gone there; however, I believe it is a fault of Council as no one course of action was taken. We are here today as there were many paths to take before today but we collectively did not. I know I asked at the last Council meeting could we not just and add a number 2 to get the $70.9 million out as a rebate as these funds were set aside for businesses tax relief. I listened to the reasons why we could not, I should not have listened as if we had taken that path at that time we would not be here today. I should have pushed harder as many of us should have found a solution before today.

This is a drastic plan. It calls for some pretty drastic cuts. But we have reached the point where we don’t have any other options. How we handle assessments are governed by provincial legislation. So our options now are to cut spending – and I disagree with the assertions out there that we have a spending problem. Our Administration has done a great job finding ways to do more with less, to find efficiencies, to find cuts. This ask is by no means a reflection of them, or the work that they have done. But we simply cannot ask businesses to bear these costs. Passing the buck completely to residential taxpayers is an untenable solution. I recognize that difficult decisions will be made and that services will be impacted. But at the end of the day, businesses will stay open, people will stay working, and money will continue flowing through our economy, and that will benefit our economic recovery. We can continue to implement programs and projects to attract new industries, businesses, and people. Keeping our existing businesses open will ensure future growth, future expansion of our tax base, and a return to the good times that Calgary has known and deserves to know again.

Closing remarks

Thank you your worship, and thanks everyone for the debate. I ask that you all vote in favour of this Notice of Motion. We have worked hard, alongside administration to ensure that we have the capability of delivering nearly $131 million in relief to our business community as soon as possible. Yes, this plan is drastic and the cuts are substantial. But these cuts will result in permanent relief. The motion is not overly reliant on one-time funds. We can work on a plan to ensure businesses are not faced with an unfair tax burden before bills are mailed out next year. We can keep programs that Council has passed to encourage diversification of our economy, new businesses and new jobs, making Calgary a more resilient city.

Keeping businesses open will keep Calgarians working, and will at the very least maintain our existing tax base. Passing this motion will allow programs meant to attract new businesses to the city flourish, knowing that Council has their back and is committed to a more equitable tax regime. This motion will show businesses that Calgary is indeed open for business and will complement existing Council policies. Yes, there will be some short-term pain, but not as painful as if we do nothing. Passing this motion will ensure that Calgary, in the medium to long term, is a city that flourishes. Combined with policies from our partners at the provincial government, we can ensure that Calgary remains a city that people want to come work, live and play.

I want to thank my colleagues for their work on this. But I also want to make sure that we continue working together. We all have different ideas, but we all love this city and want to make it the best city it can be. That can get lost at times, it seems. No one runs for this job if they don’t love this city and want to make it better. We all just have different ideas on how to make it better. We need to embrace healthy debate. We need to end rhetoric. We need to stop with the half-truths and the misleading of the public for political gain. We need to cut out the silliness and the politics where we won’t attach our name to something, even though we may agree with it, because someone else’s name is attached to it. We need to do a better job of coming together to serve Calgarians, as we have done on this notice of motion.

Closed, your Worship.

As always, I welcome your thoughtful comments and concerns. You can share them with me here.