Edmonton City Council has just passed its first multi-year operating budget. The challenge was to limit the property tax increase for the 2016-18 years, without sacrificing the important services that keep up with Edmonton’s ongoing growth. To achieve a balance between the necessary programs and services for Edmontonians, and the fiscal reality of the regional, provincial, and Canadian economies was always going to require compromises.
The approved budget limits the tax levy increase to 3.4% in 2016 and 2017, and 4.8% in 2018. The numbers mean a homeowner with a $401,000-house will pay approximately $2,305 in 2016, which is $82 more than the 2015 average, with additional $40 for utility rates.
While I’m pleased that the City was able to identify areas for savings and efficiencies, the tax increase could have dropped further – particularly if Council had agreed to support my motion to set a cap on the increase at the outset of the budget considerations.
The first compromise was the suspension of the Neighbourhood Renewal Levy for 2016 and 2017 – its reintroduction in 2018 accounts for the additional increase in that year. Neighbourhood renewal projects will remain on schedule for 2016 and 2017, with funding for those years coming from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant.
The second, and possibly most significant, compromise was the determination by Council to take a step back from jurisdictional downloading: taking on the brunt of social, environmental, and infrastructure challenges that are rightly the responsibility of higher levels of government. As councillors, we care about the problems in our city; but in these times it is crucial to rethink our strategy for addressing them. That will involve putting pressure on the Province and the Federal government to commit more funding to affordable housing, anti-poverty initiatives, mental health and addiction – and, crucially, to fully support our police service so that they can focus on crime prevention.
The “economise” part of the equation builds on the City’s 2% policy, which pledges to identify 2% in efficiencies across City departments. In addition, this year Council was able to reallocate $2 million in fuel savings to essential programs. The City has also committed to undertake a full service review – essentially an audit of all departments and programs – to determine which services and facilities should be prioritized and which may be under-utilised. I’m pleased to have made this proposal with the support of the Mayor.
As part of budget consultation, we asked Edmontonians about their priorities. Edmontonians told us that they wanted essential services and programs to be supported: reducing traffic congestion, improving public transit and LRT expansion, efficient snow removal, addressing potholes, and maintaining or improving community safety were at the top of that list. And they wanted it accomplished with minimal increase to their tax burden.
Of the 67 budget amendments put forward, 42 were passed with at least partial funding. Over half of these reflected the top priorities outlined by the public.
Edmontonians told us that preserving the River Valley matters to them. I proposed motions to support the Southwest Ribbon of Green plan to connect Big Island and River Valley Oleskiw lands to the river valley parks system, and to fund the on-going conceptual planning for the River Crossing redevelopment in West Rossdale. These programs, which have the potential to leave a lasting legacy for two unique areas of our city, were funded through one-time fuel savings.
I also seconded a motion to reduce funding to EEDC to reflect a change of focus for their organization – a savings of $1.2 million that went directly to reducing the tax levy.
After all the pros and cons have been weighed in the balance, the current budget comes close to achieving our objectives within the constraints we face: provide essential and needed services with minimal additional cost to Edmontonians.
The final tax rate will be confirmed in the spring, when the Province announces the Provincial Education Tax rate for 2016.