Fort Smith closes in on five-percent 2023 tax increase
The city of Fort Smith this week moved closer to a 5 percent property tax hike through 2023 as city councilors review next year’s proposed budget.
At a Tuesday meeting, the council made minor changes but did not come up with any major cuts. There is still room for further changes before the December 31 deadline for budget approval.
Council members will finalize the budget at a meeting later this month. If the council later changes the mill rate ratio, which decides how businesses, residents and other groups like governments share that tax burden, it could further shift each group’s payments.
Fort Smith faces significant cost pressures from utilities such as heat and electricity.
For example, heating the recreation and community center currently costs more than double the estimated $65,000 annually. As of 2023, the city is increasing the budget to $135,000 to reflect the reality of keeping the center warm.
Meanwhile, the city must plan for consecutive 10 percent increases in local electricity rates, which NWT Power Corporation is targeting. Though that increase hasn’t yet been approved by the territory’s regulator, the city says it has to assume the worst.
Those numbers left city councils looking to cut elsewhere.
The city’s advertising budget is to be halved to $5,000. City Manager Cynthia White said much of the old $10,000 budget went unspent because the city no longer has a newspaper — the Northern Journal shut down in 2016 — where money could be spent on job advertisements.
City councilors are also calling for a $35,000 annual grant for the city’s museum and are asking if the territorial government could increase its share of the funding.
And cutting the Christmas lights — an issue raised at a public meeting last month when councilors sought residents’ views on where they could save money — returned to the table at Tuesday’s meeting.
In 2021, Fort Smith spent nearly $18,000 on Christmas lights despite a budget of $8,500. The city says NWT Power Corporation used to donate their labor to put up the lights but is now charging a fee, but the power company must shut down because the lights are attached to the power company’s poles.
One suggestion is that in the coming years, downtown Fort Smith will be prioritized for lighting — and the lights will stop at the point where the $8,500 goes out.
“What if we started at the four-way stop and worked four ways until we ran out of money?” said Deputy Mayor Jay MacDonald, only half-jokingly.
Similarly, the city’s Canada Day budget is expected to decrease to $7,500 from an original $10,000. A $5,000 annual contribution to the Northern Arts and Cultural Center’s program that sends traveling artists to Fort Smith will be eliminated.
The city says it will step up work to actively enforce debt collection over the next year, while councilors also expressed a desire that nonprofits applying for special program grants use a more formal, competitive application process
On a smaller scale, closing the Mary Kaeser Library building — and moving the library to the community center — saves the lion’s share of $2,000 in telephone and Internet access costs.
“Ultimately, it’s a five percent increase,” White said after council members spent three and a half hours inspecting the household line by line. Yellowknife passed a budget with a similar increase earlier this week.
Subsidy, garbage rate for 2023 decisions
Other contentious issues discussed at last month’s public meeting, such as: E.g. whether to change the tax subsidy for senior citizens or switch to less frequent garbage collection will be further examined in 2023 with no further action being taken.
MacDonald said the senior citizen subsidy – which the city has indicated is becoming unsustainable as the proportion of seniors increases – warrants “a bigger conversation in the New Year” about how it can be “equitably administered”.
White said dumping would require decisions in 2023, if only to ensure a new, upgraded garbage truck arrives by 2025, such is the current backlog of specialty vehicles amid global supply chain troubles.
“I’m keen to move it forward, but I think we want to make sure we’re doing it right and not upsetting the whole community too much,” MacDonald said.
Some residents had opposed watering down the city’s current twice-weekly garbage collection schedule, arguing, for example, that wild animals could be attracted to garbage awaiting collection.
“We’re not the only community in the world that is surrounded by wilderness and has wildlife,” White said Tuesday, “and many, many, many, many communities have twice-monthly trash pickups and twice-monthly compost pickups.
“There are hundreds of communities, possibly thousands of communities in Canada that are in exactly the same situation as us and they are not doing garbage pickup twice a week.”