What a surprise. With an election barely a year away, and city council looking into its financial crystal ball, there is talk of a tax freeze in 2014.
Coincidence? Maybe, but the optics would suggest councillors are trying to throw the electorate a bone before they head to the polls.
Sure, there has been plenty made of cutting during budget deliberations these last few years, but I can’t recall an instance where a report has been commissioned on the subject of a tax freeze – until now.
Of course at this point it is all talk. These are early days and we don't even know who will sit on the budget steering committee, let alone how the 2014 tax levy will eventually shake out.
It seems clear that if a tax freeze takes place in 2014 there will be cuts at city hall. That was the message from the city's finance manager Maureen Adams during 2013 budget deliberations and she reiterated that sentiment this week too.
No one knows just which city departments will be hit when it comes to those service cuts – but it's a good idea to take a look.
Coun. Andre Rivette (who has recently come out of retirement and is returning to the sales game) made a big deal out of the fact that something needs to come out of city hall that paints a financial picture taxpayers can understand.
His colleagues unanimously voted to commission the tax freeze report.
The thinking is fairly simple: "If tax a freeze takes place the consequences are A, B and C."
City councillors were trumpeting the fact that a surplus is forecast for the end of this year – somewhere around $500,000 – and increases in assessment next year could total between $300,000 and $500,000.
Some councillors suggested that depending on how those numbers add up, the city could find itself with hundreds of thousands more to use to mitigate a tax levy increase than it had in 2013.
But it's not that simple.
Budget surpluses go into the city's reserve fund – an account where money is kept for a rainy day (or at least that's the philosophy). It takes a motion from city councillors to move money out of reserves and use it for things like eliminating pressure on the tax base.
Councillors have even used reserve funds to help so-called outside agencies do their work. But it has come with a price.
"Basically by bringing this down year after year, you're now at the point you don't have the flexibility or the wherewithal to weather any unseen blips in your budget - and that's a problem," auditor Ross Markell told councillors back in April.
Can city council ignore such a blatant warning from a respected local financial expert?
The next issue to consider is provincial funding. Adams, during Monday's budget session, suggested provincial transfer payments could drop by hundreds of thousands in 2014.
That money will have to be made up somewhere. Those two issues alone might be just enough to quell any argument that the city will find itself with a little more money to play with when it comes to assessment increases and budget surpluses.
So if a tax freeze is really on the table, where else can the city find the money? It's sad to say but there is a white elephant in the room: people.
Like it or not, a tax freeze could very easily equate to some municipal employees losing their jobs. At least that is likely to be the message that will come out of city hall when municipal departments make their budget submissions in 2014.
Salaries and benefits, especially in areas like policing, firefighting and to a lesser degree paramedics, are far outpacing other expenditures the city is making.
Over the last 11 years the city's tax levy has grown by $13.2 million. The combined budgets for police, fire and paramedics have jumped by $12.2 million – the balance, not even $1 million in the final tally, goes to other city departments.
And, the city is handcuffed (no pun intended) in that it has little recourse to appeal or reject arbitrated settlements in areas like police and fire.
City bean counters will tell you thanks to this formula, and with provincial funding changes happening nearly every year, the corporation is doing more with less all the time.
Which means we are headed for a very long, maybe even painful, discussion that could result in people getting laid off.
Not one person has ever said they enjoy paying the taxes they do. A tax freeze would be wonderful and quite frankly I support the idea of looking at how one will play out.
And if some fat can be trimmed I'll be the first one to show up with my knife - hopefully cuts can be made without forcing people to the employment office.