No Crumbling City: Neighbourhood Renewal and the Operating Budget
Last week, I wrote about the proposed 4.9% property tax increase. Long story short, I don’t support a 4.9% increase. In tough economic times when many Edmontonians are struggling with job losses, Council has to respond by cutting down on ‘want’ projects and ensuring our ‘needs’ are being met effectively. Mayor Iveson has lead the charge this past week on restraint both by suggesting "we stick to our jurisdiction" and by making some hard choices. I support his position.
Proposed 2016-2018 Operating Budget Anatomy
For the first time in the City of Edmonton’s history, instead of single-year Operating Budgets, we will be discussing a 3-year operating budget.
The proposed 2016-2018 Operating Budget reflects a 4.9% increase in property taxes for each of the next three years, made up of the following:
- 2.5% increase for all civic operations
- 2.0% to support the staff needed for new fire stations, parks, libraries etc.
- 1.5% dedicated to our Neighbourhood Renewal Program
- 0.8% to operate and maintain the future LRT Valley Line
- 0.9% for growth projects available for Council to re-allocate to priority projects
- (2.8)% in revenue offsets from additional properties.
For the average household (a single-family dwelling with an assessed value of $401,000) the proposed budget would mean an increase of $109 in 2016, $114 in 2017, and $120 in 2018, in addition to the utility fee increases for $39.72/year/household.
The proposed budget increase is not reflective of the economic conditions that many Edmontonians are now experiencing. Council is going to have to find ways to reduce the rate to a more manageable amount.
Committed to Fixing Neighbourhoods ASAP
One way to do this is through the neighbourhood renewal levy. By adjusting how we fund neighbourhood renewal by shifting some of the burden away from the property tax we could bring the potential tax increase down to 3.4%. Removing the neighbourhood renewal levy won’t impact the current schedule of neighbourhoods if we use other capital funding sources. I plan to ask more questions to ensure that we adequately replace the funding so that we don’t fall behind.
That being said, the Province has recently announced some additional grant funding for Edmonton for infrastructure programs. The 1.5% levy associated with neighbourhood renewal, if it were to be removed from your tax bill, could be replaced with this grant funding, and wouldn’t be added to your property tax bill. This MSI funding could be how we keep neighbourhood renewal on track while making property taxes more affordable. We are now already collecting upwards of $110,000,000 each year to fund this beloved program.
Buying our Textbooks
A few things that come to mind are the Energy Transition Strategy, and some proportional funding for the Low Income Transit Pass and affordable housing. This budget reminds me of when I was a kid and the Sears Christmas catalog came in the mail. There were so many nice things my family couldn't afford. But the Energy Transition Strategy, low income transit pass, and affordable housing aren’t toys in the Christmas catalogue we wish we could have; these are items that are critical to our economic and environmental success. These are like our schoolbooks - costly today, but necessary for success tomorrow.
Two more programs I would like to see funded through departmental efficiencies is Cornerstores and the Development Incentive grant program. These programs will mean that Petrolia Mall, and other spaces like it, will get long-awaited facelifts as new businesses open their doors. I’ll be fighting to keep this in the budget somehow for 2016-2018. I’m also trying to support a measured increase in wildlife management to deal with the Ward’s increased nuisance coyote issues.
Administration needs to shift resources to support these critical service packages. A program review is necessary to fully explore our programs, but for now Administration will have to ask staff to take on new duties or cut back on programs that are less aligned with our strategic goals in order to move these forward.
Eye on the ball
We do have $10 million delineated for funding service packages that have been presented as unfunded. This $10 million, if unspent, would mean a further reduction of roughly .75% to the already proposed 4.9% increase. Council is going to have to keep its eye on the ball and practice restraint to avoid spending all of that $10 million.
That temptation will be strong - with 86 unfunded projects worth $136.4 million, every Councillor will have projects that they feel are worth dipping into that $10 million to fund. Our budget debates will be difficult, but accountability to our colleagues and the public will hopefully be enough to keep us committed to a path of restraint.