The City of Edmonton’s operating and capital budgets were passed last week by votes of 8-5 and 9-4, respectively. The result was a budget with an average property tax increase just below 5% for the next four years.
You can watch the closing day of budget meetings here.
I want to be clear that I came to every budget item with an open mind and genuine willingness to see investment in all four corners of our city. I also came to this with the understanding that council will face opposition to our “big city building” initiatives if Edmontonians don’t see investment in their own streets.
People are struggling, full stop. Inflation is at its highest in decades. And yet, we have risked so much in this budget. Using debt to stimulate short term recovery pushes the budget back on the citizens. We have to responsibly acknowledge that. Residents and their families are doing everything possible to make ends meet and while council chose to fund many key investments, they also chose not to fully find some key priorities for Edmontonians.
I’ll go into more detail on individual budget items in a follow-up post (yes, including bike lanes), but I wanted to start by sharing the reasons behind my ultimate decision to vote against the budget last week — the first budget I have voted against in my time on council. It wasn’t a decision made lightly or without reflection, but it is a decision that I firmly stand by.
I hold out some hope that there will be opportunities to rectify some of the big misses through budget adjustments, but doing so will require the willingness of council. I will continue to encourage my colleagues to make big decisions cautiously and thoughtfully.
As outlined in a previous post, a top priority of mine with this budget was ensuring that there would be demonstrable value for residents through adequate funding for core services. Unfortunately, that priority was not reflected in this budget.
City Operations has done the painstaking work to quantify the funding required for the service standards that the City has set, including things like snow removal. We have the data right in front of us, showing that as demand has grown, we have struggled to deliver the service that Edmontonians expect. We know the funding required to get us there, and we have buy-in from the folks set to deliver those services.
Some of my colleagues have talked about a budget increase in snow removal and, while technically correct, what’s missing from that story is that we went into this budget with a commitment to an enhanced level of service that would get us closer to the standard service delivery outlined in City policy and demanded by residents.
Council even went so far as to fund a portion of that enhancement for the remainder of 2022 with the general consensus that we wanted to get to full funding in this budget. Unfortunately, what ultimately passed was only 20% of the full funding, or $48.2M less than where we need to be on snow removal over the next four years.
We have an efficiency exercise coming in the new year, and I hope that it nets something close to council’s expectations, but having been through two of these initiatives in the last five years, I remain skeptical it will net the full value the are hoping for.
The overall funding for infrastructure renewal has been limited to 25% in this budget and leaving vital renewal plans without certainty is not something that I could support. A motion to see use of the tax levy to increase funding was withdrawn without debate, which I also think was a mistake. Time and again, Edmontonians have told me that they are comfortable with modest increases when they can see their tax dollars reflected in their communities and the city at large.
I have said many times that we can have the nicest roads in the world — or maybe the cleanest bike lanes? — but you still need a place to go on them. While we did see investment in the Edge Fund, Chinatown, and a one-time adjustment to Explore Edmonton, we largely haven’t articulated a vision for where we are going as a city.
I also think it was a mistake to not take a more progressive look at our real estate portfolio with this budget and how we could better leverage those opportunities, though we will get another chance to do so in the spring. The historic impact of the municipal government playing a role in the development of neighbourhoods is well documented, and our slow moving, risk averse approach to land development creates lethargic, static communities.
REGIONALISM ON LIFE SUPPORT
Edmonton’s City Plan outlines a vision for the city that includes 15-minute communities, higher density, and an integrated transportation system. Multi-modal transportation — whether it's driving, walking, rolling, or taking transit — is absolutely essential to building a cosmopolitan city.
There was a time in recent history when Edmonton refused to pave 170 street for fear that St. Albert might benefit. Consecutive councils have spent the last ten years building up trust with our regional partners, convincing them that if they took a leap of faith and entered into a partnership with their major municipality, we would have their back.
Instead, this council has decided not to fund regional transit in a ruling described as “...council’s most damaging gaffe to date”.
From my point of view, that decade of relationship building, of trust and of collaboration, is now in peril. And the people who will lose as a result of this decision are not those around the council table; it will be the million people we represent and the hundreds of thousands of people regionally who must continue to bear the burden of inefficiency.
To add insult to injury, this decision could also put the Financial Stabilization Reserve — the City’s version of an emergency fund — in deficit.
What I worry about most is the signal that has been sent to the region. The way regional transit has been debated with this council has frankly set a dangerous precedent that Edmonton is not a reliable partner and that we will choose to move forward alone, isolated from the essential collaboration of other municipalities.
It will take refocused leadership, and a commitment to understanding the challenges of our regional municipalities to build that trust back. In the new year, there’s a conversation that council needs to have about our place at the center of a community that doesn’t stop at our legal boundaries.
A tax increase under five percent is in line with what other municipalities are facing, and is a better outcome than expected. I make no quarrel with the number itself and I retain some optimism that we may see that increase drop throughout the next four years, through partnerships and funding opportunities that City Administration will explore.
What I am concerned about is that we are becoming a federation of wards; a network of interconnected roadways with no clear destination or united vision.
I’ve reflected a lot on how we got here and the work that we’ve done. We often forget that while we are all elected independently to represent the interests of our constituents in our ward, we also take an oath to work towards the betterment of our entire city. That has been an underlying rift throughout our entire budget debate.
Our job, as municipal leaders, is to prioritize the things that everyday Edmontonians interact with the most: infrastructure, cleanliness, safety, mobility. While we’ve tackled some of this, we haven’t done so in a cohesive way that integrates into our City Plan and growth strategy.
As my colleague, Councillor Knack, has said, this is not about the final number, it's about what’s actually in the budget. And while I was happy to support many of the additions — for housing, for addictions, for added services in our communities — it was ultimately the big misses and the absence of vision that resulted in my vote in opposition.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank all of the organizations and individuals that came out to speak to City Council about budget at the November 28 and 29 public hearings. Listening to those presentations really laid bare the difficult choices that were ahead of us as a council and showcased the amazing work being done in this city. You should all be very proud.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts and I’d invite you to share any questions or comments you may have, either through email using firstname.lastname@example.org, through comments on the blog or social media, or by phone at 780-496-8120.
I look forward to the start of a new year and the chance to get back to work.