2020 Budget - How I Voted

December 03, 2019

Last week, Calgary City Council discussed the 2020 Budget. After a long budget week, and as your representative, I think it’s important to inform Ward 6 residents of the decisions I made. 

On the Overall Budget:

I voted against the overall budget. The reason was City Council was not able to hold the line at a zero percent increase year over year. While some will argue that a 1.5 percent increase in spending year over year is modest, I felt that now was not the time to be doing so. As things stand, about 60,000 Albertans remain out of work, and the unemployment rate in Calgary - 7.1 percent - is the highest among major Canadian cities and higher than the national average at 5.5 percent. 

Fundamentally, and I stated in my column in the Calgary Herald last week, we need to reduce the cost of government while investing in infrastructure and initiatives that have a long term socioeconomic benefit for all Calgarians. Given that this was the year that Council moved towards adjusting the business to residential tax burden ratio, holding the line at zero was, in my mind, the right thing to do.

What I voted against. Council approved a 1.5 percent increase to the budget, however elected to use one time capital ($24 million) to adjust that 1.5 percent to a zero – so not cuts, just moving buckets of money. It is important to remember that the approved 1.5 percent was an adjusted option down from 3.03 percent, which would have been the equivalent of $52 million dollars cut from the budget.  In my opinion, we need to change how we budget. After months of Council members talking about cuts and holding the line, as well as the numerous conversations we have had about not using one time capital to hide our operational challenges – only a few of us attempted to actually hold the line in an attempt to provide tax relief to Calgarians.

Business to Residential Tax Shift:

I voted in support of the business to residential tax shift. This year, City Council decided to shift the tax burden from businesses to residences. As you may recall, due to the collapse of downtown office valuations, business outside the core was given the lion’s share of the tax burden. This proved to be unsustainable and required an immediate, long-term solution. Thus, Council voted to shift the way we take taxes to 48 percent from non-residential, and 52 percent from residential. 

We all love to take our kids to their favourite play place, music or ice cream store. We love to eat at local restaurants. We love our local shops and pubs. We love the businesses near and dear to us that make our lives better every day.  I bet you can think of at least one local store where you will do some holiday shopping. But, we have to understand that our current assessment process is broken, and the stores we love are closing in record numbers. 

Businesses have been subsidizing the cost of services that all citizens enjoy. These same businesses employ thousands of Calgarians. A long term fix was necessary: previous council decisions have forced our hand as they bandaided this issue with a “one-time” capital solution every year that did not address the core issue and was ultimately unsustainable. Remember that almost $100 million dollars over the past five years has been used as a band aid solution – that is money we will never see back.

As a result of this shift, the average property tax increase is $130 for the year. While the percentage will seem large, the dollar value is what we must remember - for an extra $11 dollars a month, this will keep the business we value open, and keep Calgarians employed. 

We must remember that business owners in Calgary are also residents who pay property tax on their homes. When all things are taken into account, small business owners are the largest employers of our citizens. Those employed by small business also pay property tax. Although the tax shift decision was difficult, we cannot allow businesses to close down.

With all this said, had Council made the cuts to the budget as planned, this increase to homeowners would have been smaller and much more palatable. Again, this is why I voted against the overall budget – because City Council could have done better especially when it knew the tax shift was necessary this year.

Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF)

As  City Council’s representative on Calgary Economic Development and Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF), I was proud to vote to not gut this fund. As you may recall, OCIF was established back in 2017 in a 14-1 Council vote. The Fund is used to attract and retain new business to Calgary, with a primary focus on available office space in the downtown core.  What’s important to remember is – OCIF is working.

Since its inception, OCIF has created 988 jobs , with another 640 coming quickly. Out of the $250,000 spent to date – we have leveraged $163.5M in total project investment with a funding commitment of $23.5M. This is a great example of how the City is working with the private sector to capitalize on opportunities that benefit all Calgarians

For example, last month, 2018 OCIF recipient Attabotics were given a special mention on the TIME 100 Best Inventions list, and were named on to CNBC’s 2019 Upstart 100 - a ranking of the world’s most promising start-ups. Attabotics was started in 2016 when three unemployed engineers from the oil and gas sector teamed up together to create a robotics and logistics company. Since OCIF supported Attabotics in 2018, hundreds of new jobs have been created in the Calgary area and the company intends to keep its headquarters in Calgary. 

I also note, almost every major North American city has a similar program to attract new businesses. Indeed, Calgary is now competing directly with cities across Canada and the United States. In the absence of provincial tax credits, this fund is a tool that City Council has to promote Calgary and attract the world’s top talent. We look forward to working with the province going forwards to seek ways to further leverage the use of the fund, while ensuring the City can participate in developing a jurisdictional tax advantage program for Calgarians.

Residential Speed Limits

Earlier this month, City Council dedicated $200,000 to do begin engagement on residential speed limit reductions.

Durning budget deliberations, it was determined having the discussion on residential speed limit reductions was not supported by the majority of citizens. I believe that in order for this to be a successful program, public participation and desire for change is critical. Given the absence of public support, I voted in favour of reversing this decision and ending the conversation on reducing residential speed limits.

Instead, that funding has been allocated to the Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership (DOAP team). This money will act as one-time bridge funding for the DOAP team, who serve to reduce the impact of substance abuse issues and public intoxication.  

Low-Income Transit Pass

This was one of the most difficult items that City Council considered during the budget deliberations last week. Ultimately, I voted against holding the low-income transit pass at $5.30 per month. This is very difficult as I certainly believe ensuring that people have access to transit, which is key to their employment, is a priority. 

As things stand, the low-income transit pass is consistently supplemented with “one-time” funding every year to sustain it. By increasing the price of the lowest-band of the pass to $18 dollars a month, this increase would keep the pass the lowest-priced pass in Canada, while also ultimately sustaining the program into the future without the need to supplement it with “one-time” funding yearly. 

Thus, the reason why I supported a raise from $5.30 a month to $18 was that it would make the program sustainable and not reliant on year over year top up funding of $6.5 million per year. Ultimately, Council voted to add the $6.5 million dollars to the base budget, thereby ensuring the one-time funding is baked in and would no longer be a yearly conversation. 

Swimming Pools in Inglewood and the Beltline

During the budget deliberations, City Council learned that closing the Inglewood and Beltline pools would be a similar cost to keep them open for the year. As a result, I voted in favour of keeping the pools open, which ultimately passed. I do note - and as with all public facilities - they remain viable so long as they are able to attract a significant user-base. In the future, I call upon proponents of the swimming pools to utilize them and get your neighbours out to use them as well!

At the end of the day, I don’t like to see City facilities close down, but if the user support isn’t there, City Council will look at further efficiency options. Moreover, I hope that Council will consider other arrangements (like public-private partnerships) that keep these facilities open without impacting the City’s operating budget.  

Reducing Public and Employee Engagement and Communications

I voted against reducing the City’s communications budget; and this proposal ultimately failed at Council. In my opinion, reducing customer service and communications is an easy thing to pick on – yet citizens consistently ask us for more and more communication from the City. In our citizen satisfaction survey, only 2 percent of citizens stated that they receive too much communication and want less opportunity to communicate with the City. As the population of our City continues to grow, having services like 3-1-1 and our website is vital to the relationship between the City and our residents.

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