A sense of apprehension hung heavily over city council chambers on July 27.
It was that evening that a fiscal update was presented to our elected mayor and councillors. They were informed that the municipality’s projected surplus for 2020 was expected to be nearly halved to $3.2 million.
The culprit: COVID-19.
“Unprecedented” and “extremely volatile” were some of the terms that city staff used to describe the predicament.
Fortunately, Yellowknife went into the pandemic with a substantial surplus, and our mayor, council and municipal staff deserve credit for that.
Fast-forward to late November and early December. Our councillors grabbed their lunch pails and began budget deliberations. Night after night, they pored over the proposed budget line by line. Knowing how little room they had to manoeuvre, they eliminated things like the entire travel budget, a $300,000 fire hall generator and a $75,000 study on the future of Ruth Inch Memorial Pool was bumped to 2022 – if residents approve of the new aquatic centre in an upcoming referendum. There were many other cuts.
By the time it was all said and done, taxpayers were left facing a 2.5 per cent property tax hike, the highest since 1.86 per cent in 2018, but entirely understandable during an extraordinary year when the budget was described as “tight” and “bare bones.”
Fast-forward to this past Monday. Council was presented with audited financial statements for 2020 and the news was more buoyant than anyone expected. It turns out that $8 million was actually leftover.
The loss of revenue from a drop in user fees wasn’t as extreme as it could have been, considering that recreational facilities were forced to close for stretches or be limited to much lower capacity due to COVID-19.
The category of “other revenues” took a larger hit, percentage-wise, as the city didn’t impose interest on most overdue accounts because of the pandemic – a benevolent gesture at a time when so many businesses and residents were struggling.
Overall, revenues were down just 0.1 per cent. Remarkable.
So far, the municipality remains in a “favourable position,” according to Sharolynn Woodward, the city’s director of corporate services.
There’s a divergence of philosophies, however. Coun. Cynthia Mufandaedza, council’s representative on the audit committee, was pleased with the financial performance to date, all factors considered.
However, Coun. Niels Konge pointed to the city’s reliance on $3 million in aid from the federal and territorial governments, much more than the $837,000 expected in grants and transfers prior to the onset of COVID-19.
“It is not really a surplus and we got lucky,” said Konge. “If we hadn’t gotten the extra from the feds and the territory, we would be in a little bit of a situation.”
It’s hard to argue with that, but what municipalities across the country aren’t relying on additional support from higher levels of government?
Reading the economic tea leaves is an inexact science at the best of times, but even more so during a pandemic. As vaccinations progress and the threat of COVID-19 wanes, we hope to be returning to normal lives and normal financial trends sooner than later.
The good news for Yellowknife residents should be that we too reap the benefits of city council’s prudent fiscal management. Council will be sitting down in May to determine user fees for the upcoming year. We presume that the line can be held pretty well on current charges to use recreational facilities.
The past year has hurt enough. We don’t need to feel the pain of digging deeper in our pocketbooks for access to the pool and Multiplex when the city is in decent financial shape.
Kudos to council