Budget season is officially over now, and many tough decisions have been made by Council during this process. As we finish up our budget discussions, I wanted to send out a quick update on the progress Council has made so far and how I’ve approached decision-making.
As it stands, property taxes will increase by 2.6% - 0.7% less than originally anticipated. When we break down this increase, our spending is going toward four main areas:
- 0.6% of the increase will fund the new LRT project, integrating better transit in our city and continuing to connect all sides of Edmonton to create a better, more accessible transit system
- 0.3% will fund alleyway renewal and rebuilding lanes city-wide
- 0.8% of the increase will go toward the $75 million dollar boost to the Police budget, $12 million less than the original ask
- The leftover 0.7% covers inflationary costs, with the yearly rate of inflation landing at about 2.2% presently.
We also made strong commitments to investments in affordable housing, climate change action, improving disabled transit services and the next 10 year Arts and Culture plan, which each in their own right are important cost-saving and economic development opportunities.
Our Capital Budget was approved with $4 billion of new spending. The capital projects I advocated for were the long overlooked 40th Avenue LRT station, which now has planning and design money to get started, a new Parks and Roadway Yard in South Edmonton, and I will continue to fight for small-scale recreational amenities in our coming supplementary capital budgets like the Bike Park in Queen Elizabeth Park and increasing our inventory of baseball diamonds across Edmonton.
Priorities, Priorities, Priorities
I’ve been partly frustrated with and partly inspired by this budget. Many of my top priorities, such as climate sustainability and resiliency, affordable housing, regional economic development, and building our next “transformational” city plan were not recommended for funding by administration in the proposed operating budget. The City’s priorities are reflected in what is represented in the budget, and I didn’t seen a total alignment with the City’s vision and goals. That’s not to say that there’s no alignment or that Administration’s done a bad job overall, but I do think there’s room here to better match up our money with our vision and priorities. This has been the frustrating part.
You build and invest into what you value, and if this budget is a reflection of what the City values, I believe there are areas we’ve missed the mark on. We were able to add in and approve some of those priorities in the end, but this process was a reflection of why we may need to think about changing the way we tackle budgets in the future. We need to think critically about where the money is going and whether funding certain areas is promoting our priorities or simply maintaining a status quo locked in place.
Keeping Businesses in Mind
One of the things we’ve been focusing is finding ways reduce labour costs and manage the number of FTE’s we have and actually need. I do this because we need money to spend on the things we value, but I’m very aware of the burden of increasing taxes on Edmontonians, including our businesses.
Our budgets affect businesses greatly, because taxes are categorically 2-3 times more burdensome for small and medium-sized establishments because of the mill rate. Taxes (property, federal, provincial, GST, carbon, etc) also get stacked and stacked for local businesses, creating a heavy weight on the owners of local businesses like coffee shops, breweries, markets, and restaurants that we love so much as Edmontonians - the businesses that add character, uniqueness, and vibrancy to the communities they occupy. But whether you sell fireplaces, oilfield supplies or local organic bison products the impact is the same.
A large part of why I’m so focused on reducing spending in our budget is because of these businesses and community hubs that add so much to our city. While we are relatively competitive when compared with other municipalities across Canada, I believe we should constantly strive towards a better, more hospitable environment for business growth. In fact our administration provided us recent information that suggested property tax is affecting the viability of small business.
This is one of the many reasons why each decision we make regarding the budget must be responsible, must align with the City’s goals, and must keep the Edmontonian businesses and taxpayers in mind - because we’re affecting them with every vote.
So far, we’ve been playing a game of battleship/bingo with the budget and administration. This year, the profiles were randomized, which means that we provided more scrutiny to funding packages that were debated later. Randomizing the items, while impartial and helpful in some ways, had caused Council to play a bit blind - guessing at areas without being able to see the other side of the board.
To this effect, I’m going to make a motion at Council that Administration brings back a work plan for a priority-based budget approach early in the new year. In this, I’ve included a request for an annual efficiency target for the City, which along with the new procedure for budget, ensures that we’re positioned to deal with budget items in terms of their importance rather than a randomized list. This will give Council better sightlines and more strategic control over prioritization in the future
Above everything, my top priority is to continue developing a better, more affordable and livable city. An Edmonton that is attractive to young people, that encourages investment, that promotes walkability and development in the core - an Edmonton where people want to build their lives.
But in order to get to this space, we need to continue to attack unnecessary spending and invest in what is most important and aligns with the City’s vision. We have to keep our priorities as the guide for our decisions. Our vision and goals as a City should be reflected in our budget to secure a better city and a better future. This will be important work for 2019.