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Thursday, 19 December 2013 15:05

Will life still make sense in Swift Current with new financial strategy?

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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For many people, the approach of a new year is a time of reflection when they consider their achievements and failures during the past 12 months and look ahead to the promise of a fresh start.


The countdown to 2014 has added significance in Swift Current as the community gets ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its incorporation as a city on Jan. 15, 1914.
The year-long centennial celebrations will be focused on honouring the city’s past and on celebrating its present while also looking ahead to the future. The City of Swift Current is already focusing on the future and two important initiatives were unveiled last week to deal with economic and financial planning.
The City’s economic development planning started last spring when it announced the creation of an Economic Advisory Committee, which includes prominent professional and business people.
At a Dec. 9 press conference, it announced the next steps in this process. A Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) Committee was established recently and in January 2014 a business retention and expansion survey will be conducted.
Later that same day, at the final regular council meeting of 2013, councillors unanimously approved a motion to receive and file a new financial strategy for the City.
It signals a new budgetary approach that will rely on property tax increases instead of debt and the Light and Power surplus to fund amenities, services and equipment.
These initiatives will help to address two factors of crucial importance to any local authority — to find the fiscal resources to address a community’s development and service needs and to create a business-friendly environment to retain existing businesses and attract new investment.
The City has taken a number of steps in recent years to promote Swift Current as a business-friendly community. Its tax incentive policy provides tax exemptions to businesses for improvements to existing or new buildings. As a result of strong demand for land in Munroe Industrial Park, the City recently initiated the planning process for the expansion of this industrial site.
The Market Square initiative has helped to create a more vibrant downtown and the City’s ideas for downtown revitalization include plans to acquire and preserve three historic Canadian Pacific Railway buildings.
The recent annexation of highway commercial land expanded the City’s commercial tax base and boosted the inventory of highway commercial properties within city limits, although it is offset by the additional $3.1 million in debt to compensate the R.M. of Swift Current for the loss of municipal taxation on annexed lands.
The City’s new initiative to obtain feedback from local businesses, both in the city and adjacent rural municipality, will be welcomed by the business community. The challenge is more significant with regard to the City’s proposed new financial strategy.
This strategy is important when viewed against the background of the City’s five-year capital budget until 2017. For 2013 the capital budget has been set at $19.9 million but there will be significant increases over the next four years. In 2014 the capital budget will increase to $32.9 million and to $53.6 million in 2015.
After a decline to $43.2 million in 2016 there will be a big jump in the capital budget for 2017, when it is proposed to be $103.1 million.
A significant portion of the 2017 capital budget will be the $52 million allocated to the proposed Integrated Facility, which will also see $38 million in capital investment over the preceding three years.
The City had to take on an additional $14.9 million in debt to finance its infrastructure investment for 2013 and to pay the annexation compensation to the R.M. of Swift Current. That brings the City’s total debt to $73 million, which is very close to its current debt limit, as authorized by the Saskatchewan Municipal Board, of $75 million.
The City’s proposed new financial strategy is based on the lower property taxes paid by Swift Current residents compared to other similar sized cities such as Yorkton and North Battleford.
City administration feels there is an opportunity to use property tax increases over a six-year period to replace the 13.85 per cent of the general operations budget that is currently funded by the Light and Power dividend.
If property taxes and other cost recovery initiatives can make up this 13.85 per cent portion of the budget, the City can use the Light and Power dividend to fund growth plans and manage its debt.
According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business there was a commercial-to-residential property tax gap of 2.6 in Swift Current in 2012. The Swift Current and District Chamber of Commerce is advocating for a decrease in this gap, which probably means any tax increase would be directed towards residential properties.
After a 12.2 per cent tax increase in 2012 and another 8.9 per cent increase in 2013 the prospect of more tax increases will not be welcomed by Swift Current residents.
For City administration and councillors the challenge will not only be to convince residents they are getting good value for their tax dollars, but to avoid a public perception that Swift Current is getting too expensive a place in which to live.
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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