Briefly last week, the city of Calgary risked a trashy future. In a bid to quash proposed new user fees—$4 for garbage pickup, $8 for curbside recycling—eight aldermen moved to drop the city’s waste management budget entirely. Only after Mayor Dave Bronconnier warned that the vote could cost the city $100 million—because new garbage trucks had already been purchased and third-party contracts struck—was trash collection saved (there was also the little matter of who would gather all the ordure).
Triggering the comedy was a budget calling for a 23 per cent hike in property taxes over the next three years, the steepest increase in decades. Bronconnier, known less and less these days by the affectionate Cowtown sobriquet “Bronco,” sought the cash to update municipal offerings in a city that has traditionally favoured spotty services in exchange for some of the lowest taxes in Canada.
A number of aldermen, jockeying for position as contender mayors, opposed the move as over-ambitious. They enjoyed wide support. At public hearings, Calgarians called the pro-tax types “idiots” and “rapists.” One man came in a flak jacket. “You’re arrogant, controlling and a dictator,” another told Bronconnier. Council didn’t behave much better. “Don’t scowl at me, Your Worship,” Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart told the mayor as she haggled for more cuts. “I’m serious.”
The fuss was perplexing. Calgary has grown fast—by almost 200,000 new people since 2001—but tax hikes have only just kept pace with inflation. The frugality shows: winter snow is left in the streets for a Chinook to handle; curbside recycling won’t arrive until 2009, making the city one of the last major hubs in Canada without a program.
Eventually, the mayor reached a compromise, agreeing to raise taxes by a bit more than inflation, coupled with hefty user fees. “Most Calgarians,” he conceded, “are breathing a sigh of relief.” Yet the young, educated professionals Calgary craves may balk at a city that still behaves like a much smaller town.