This year’s three-year Operating Budget binder is exactly 734 pages long, and over the past week I’ve been over it numerous times looking for ways to reduce what Council is asking you to contribute to building, running, and fixing our City.
When planning for this budget started, we were the fastest growing city in the country. And while we’ve fared better than the rest of Alberta, we have slowed down and every day I hear stories of businesses making tough decisions and, in turn, families coming to grips with layoffs.
That’s why the proposed hike of 4.9% a year is a lot to ask of Edmontonians, and why I’ll work with Council to bring this number down – hopefully into the mid-3% range.
At its core, our job is to ensure the City respects every tax dollar you give us, no matter what shape the economy is in. In times of constraint, however, that means doing the basic things the city needs to continue operating, while making hard choices about the ‘nice to haves’ that can very quickly drive up the tax rate. It also means not spending property tax dollars on areas that fall under provincial jurisdiction, like housing. When it’s all said and done, almost $60 million in worthy new projects and initiatives will likely go unfunded, all in the name of restraint.
One proposal I have is to take a hard look at the City’s Neighbourhood Renewal Program – currently a 1.5% tax increase every year in this 2016-2018 budget. My suggestion at Transportation Committee yesterday was aimed at suspending this dedicated 1.5% annual tax increase for the next three years, looking instead to fund this program from savings on other work and from revenue sources other than property taxes as they become available.
I’m confident that we’ll be able to maintain the planned pace of work for 2016. However, for 2017 and 2018 we’ll have to see what happens to pricing, transfers from others orders of governments, and where the economy is tracking. Much has been promised by the new provincial and federal governments in the way of new transfers to cities, but it’s too soon to bank on them, so we’ll re-evaluate after the their spring budgets.
Council’s full budget deliberations will begin on November 27th and there will be many other adjustments to the budget as we go along. Rather than rushing to make unfocused cuts, my colleagues and I directed City staff to start on a full-scale program and service level review of the City’s operations that will scrutinize program effectiveness and deliver real and sustainable savings in the months and years ahead. This sort of review is key to ensuring good value for your money and strategically evaluating the efficacy of our operations.
All of this will be on top of the $53 million in cost-avoidance and efficiency reallocations already identified last year and this year through Council’s 2% initiative. My office (along with Councillor offices) have also flatlined our budgets for the next three years.
This budget, in this climate, is all about having the discipline to stick to our own jurisdiction – and the restraint to stick to the essentials. Tax relief is equally important for businesses as it is for homeowners, and I’m personally committed to bringing the number down.