"How we can improve services without raising taxes? The answer is simple: make better use of the infrastructure we’ve already built."
Over the course of Saskatoon's municipal election, nearly all of the issues being discussed connect back to questions about how we will grow as a city going forward. Mayor and council candidates issue platforms on how they will prioritize spending to respond to voters needs and wants.
Do voters want better roads? Policing? Park upgrades? Less traffic congestion? You bet they do. But when asked if they want to pay for it, through higher taxes, the answer is a resounding “no”—so we’re giving political leaders mixed messages.
The better question is, how can we improve services without raising taxes? The answer is very simple: we just have to make better use of the infrastructure we’ve already built.
Anytime the city can extract more revenue from existing infrastructure, the taxpayer wins. Currently 26% of our Central Business District is sitting as vacant land. That’s nearly 26 acres of the most valuable land in Saskatoon—already served by bus routes, fire stations, police, water and sewer—that is contributing just $1.2 million in municipal taxes annually. That’s like building a 4-storey office building and accepting that the top floor of the building will always be vacant. It’s bad business and nobody wins.
If we could foster development of buildings on that land, it could increase property taxes to somewhere between $7-21 million in taxes annually. That’s an achievable tax growth of 500-1600% that doesn’t trigger any infrastructure investment by the city. This is the low hanging fruit.
In my mind, there is one mayoral candidate who has recognized this opportunity and committed to growing our city in a smart, sustainable way that will keep our taxes low: Charlie Clark.
What can the city do with that tax growth? Given that the city is projecting a 4% tax increase in 2017 to make up the $8 million budget shortfall, they could eliminate tax increases entirely for between 1-3 years simply by facilitating construction on vacant land downtown. The other option is to apply this tax growth to improved services (i.e. increase spending on road repairs) without raising taxes. Or split the tax growth equally between tax reductions and improved services.
Over the course of my company’s 8 redevelopment projects in Riversdale, there has been an average tax growth of 600% on residential projects and 200% on commercial projects—the direct result of putting vacant land or buildings to better use. This is found money for the city! They invested nothing into these projects, which also do not trigger spending on overpasses, sewer mains, new parks, etc. In addition, every project required that we renew the city’s infrastructure, like replacing 50 year old sidewalks, which is a direct benefit to adjacent property owners.
Even if you don’t live or shop downtown, every resident in Saskatoon has a vested interest in our city making better use of downtown. We’re already paying for the operational costs and we have the right to expect that our city maximize the revenue generated from it.
During Saskatoon’s recent 10 year economic boom, downtown received just 5.4% of new construction. The majority of that work was due to publicly funded projects and not private investment. I tried to count the number of new buildings downtown and barely made it to the fingers on my 2nd hand. Downtown has completely missed the bus during the boom, and it’s due to bad development policies, which are encouraging private investment to go to the periphery of the city.
The city's newly adopted Growth Plan is clearly aimed at changing this growth pattern, indicating that up to 50% of all new development is achievable within Circle Drive. This is a commendable goal, and one that will benefit the entire city. As developers, we’ve learned from our many encounters with City Hall that their administration will not take this goal seriously until mandated to change by leadership from the Mayor.
We've been extremely active during this election, because we believe that Charlie Clark will provide the leadership necessary to make the city's Growth Plan a reality. His Plan to Save Half a Billion outlines his strategy and demonstrates the insight he's gained as a city councillor for 10 years, working to understand the actual costs of growing out compared to filling in and growing up.
Up until now, the city has been slow or unwilling to address poor policies that discourage infill development—like charging offsite levies or forcing developers to pave back alleys for small residential projects.
Infill development policies are the low hanging fruit. Let’s drive for change to easily and significantly increase city revenues, invest in our existing infrastructure and neighbourhoods, and enhance the vitality of our city. The most important opportunity for each of us to influence the future of our city happens tomorrow:
GET OUT AND VOTE.
For more information on Charlie Clark's Plan to Save Half a Billion Dollars and his support of Saskatoon's Grow Forward plan, visit www.charlieclarkformayor.ca.
Header photo found at http://saskedge.ca