Given all the foreboding comments Premier Prentice had made in the weeks and months leading up to yesterday’s provincial budget announcement, we were all bracing for the worst. Instead, we got something in the middle.
Generally, I’m pleased that the Premier and his cabinet listened to what we have been saying repeatedly over the past few months about the importance of key grants like the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) for general infrastructure and the GreenTrip fund for transit. I’ve advocated that investments in infrastructure, for example, were what the city and province needed to keep our economy moving and people working. Yesterday’s announcements hold the line on both of these grant programs, which is positive, and allow us the certainty to move ahead with our four-year $4.3B infrastructure plan approved by Council last December.
But is holding the line really enough? For now it is – under the circumstances – but it’s still not predictable, sustained, or transformative when it comes to major infrastructure investments in a growing city like Edmonton.
Moreover, for preventive social programs like Family and Community Support Services (FCSS), holding the line is essentially a cut because already we can’t effectively deal with the growth we’ve seen, nor the pressure it has put on our most vulnerable. Because of chronic under-funding in this area, agencies like our city’s libraries and our first responders begin to carry a greater burden of caring for the mentally ill and homeless in our city.
While our municipal policing grants also remain steady (with a slight adjustment for population growth), there is no new allocation of money for our city to deal with more complex policing issues that come with being the hub and service centre for all of northern Alberta, nor any recognition of the challenges that come with being home to one of the highest concentrations of prison spaces in the country.
Our real hope is that the city charter conversations we’re having with the Province will begin to address longer term certainty around infrastructure funding, a share in the province’s growing revenues, and lead to real partnerships around issues of overlap, like preventive social policy. The Province’s moves to stabilize its finances through other revenue tools should also be matched by a whole-hearted commitment to seeing the principles of our charter discussions fully realized. That is, to understand that Edmonton is a resilient place and that wealth and security can be increasingly generated in big cities like Edmonton. We can be partners in finding solutions when it comes to our budget woes.
At the same time, we also have some tough policy conversations ahead in the city charter conversations that will touch many provincial departments – including Environment, Transportation, Infrastructure, Human Services, Health and Justice – but it’s important we do the work. Many of the same population factors that drive health, welfare, and justice costs for the province also drive policing costs and social disorder effects in the city. Surely the best long term strategies for controlling provincial and city costs, and for leveraging our mutual strengths in these areas, involve shrewd, aligned investments in prevention strategies for those marginalized populations and improved service delivery for everyone.