Profit for the People

The public sector is resource-constrained, but that’s not stopping Kerry Tarasoff from trying to make an impact in the City of Saskatoon

Kerry Tarasoff spends his days asking—and answering—questions. “What kind of infrastructure, from roadways to bridges, do we put in place to promote economic development? What kind of facilities are we building to serve our citizens? What kind of tax burden are we putting on them to do those things?” says Tarasoff, who serves as CFO for the City of Saskatoon. “The decisions we make have an impact on the people who live and visit here.”

Tarasoff says the biggest differentiator of working in the public sector versus the private is the fact that impacting the community factors into every decision. The private sector’s main focus is the bottom line; the City of Saskatoon’s is quality of life.

As a result, quality of life is a key piece of the city’s strategic plan, guiding everything its employees do—an approach that was new to Tarasoff when he joined the city from the private sector in 1990. “It was a strange transition for me, having started my career in broadcasting and then going into accounting,” he says.

When Tarasoff first joined the City of Saskatoon’s audit department from Federated Co-operatives Limited, he found that the organizations were organized very differently. “Federated was centralized, run by a strong leader, and everything came from the top-down,” he says. “Here, we’re very decentralized, and decisions are made on a consensus basis, with more engagement from the public.”

At the same time, motives are different between the private and public sectors—the latter of which, in this case, serves a population of 261,000 in central Saskatchewan. “The private sector is driven by profit, the city by the social benefit of the things we’re doing,” he says.

Today, it is Tarasoff’s responsibility to ensure the city has strong policies in place to safeguard its assets as well as a plan for sustainable growth. It’s a big responsibility. “I have to balance needs and wants of everyone but, at the same time, make sure priorities are taken care of,” he says.

FACTS & FIGURES

261k

Saskatoon’s population

$39.4B

2014 property assessment

87,662

Properties assessed in 2014

$1.1B

2015 operating and capital budget

There are also many challenges, including the fact that the public sector is resource constrained. Saskatoon has experienced strong population growth over the last eight years, and residents expect that growth will pay for the city’s growth. “They think the tax pot should be overflowing, but when you have more people, you have to build more infrastructure and provide more amenities,” Tarasoff says. “We just can’t keep up.”

The difficulty stems from the fact that Canadian municipalities have a limited ability to generate revenue. Although some of its revenue comes from the fees charged for services such as utilities, the City of Saskatoon’s major source of revenue is property taxes.
It doesn’t have the legislative ability to broaden the tax base, either. In lieu of constantly raising property taxes, Saskatoon is seeking alternative revenue streams, lobbying the province to give municipalities a broader taxation base.

“We’d like the ability to consider things that Toronto does, such as assess vehicle registration fees, property transfer taxes, or even fuel taxes,” Tarasoff says. “Because it’s not only citizens that use our roads; it’s visitors and truckers who pass through. Maybe when they fuel up, they should pay a chunk of the expense for repairing roads.” He points to Denver, Colorado, as a good example. “It has multiple taxes, including a head tax that businesses pay on employees who work in the downtown area. That pays for all amenities required to bring people downtown to work—not to say we’d do that, but that’s the type of option we’d like to have.”

Despite the challenges, however, Tarasoff says it’s an interesting career. “The reward you get when you feel you’ve made a difference, when you see the money you put into a project, even something as simple as fixing a road, make an impact and be appreciated by the community because it makes a difference in someone’s daily routine—there’s nothing else like that.”