Season’s Greetings to you and yours!
At the beginning of 2020, likely like many of you, I was gearing up for a transformative year: a new City Plan, a redesigned transit system, and a new approach to waste, amongst other plans and projects. We were just past the new provincial government’s first budget and the federal government election.
By mid-March, instead of talking about roads, transit, recreation centres and property taxes, we were forced to deal with a fast-changing and frightening pandemic with no previous experience to draw from. We all remember watching what was happening in Asia, in Italy, and in New York City. The City declared a State of Local Emergency and went into a comprehensive shutdown of public spaces.
That initial reaction was taken out of an abundance of caution and it worked. By summer, Covid-19 case numbers were under control and we were operating with as much normalcy as possible at that time, albeit without some of the fun stuff that makes Edmonton the great place that it is: the festivals, the concerts, the sports gatherings and so much more.
We now find ourselves squarely in the midst of a second and far worse wave of Covid-19. I wish a more targeted response could be employed, that we knew that shutting down a particular business sector, building or region would quickly get this back under control. But at this time, the spread of Covid-19 is impacting our health system too much and sadly too many lives are being unnecessarily lost, so we are back into a period of significant restrictions under the provincial rules.
My hope is that we can all work together and respect the spirit of the current restrictions and get our numbers back under control. With better contact tracing, faster and more accurate testing, responsible actions on our part and the widespread availability of vaccines, we will be in a much better place a year from now.
Budgets and Taxes
Despite all of the challenges Covid-19 presented, Council did find a way to adapt and get a lot of work done. One step in the right direction was achieving a 0% tax increase for 2021.
This budget was a good first step in what will be a series of challenging budgets, in what I hope will be the beginning of a transformation in how Edmonton approaches its finances. This 0% tax increase was achieved largely by trimming budgets here and there, and without the transformational change in approach that so many are asking for.
We have not yet addressed the bigger issues that drive City spending. Earlier this fall, the City Auditor released two significant reports, one identifying that the City’s financial health has deteriorated, and another indicating that the City’s work force has increased at a rate far beyond what other comparable cities have seen. We talked about the City’s debt policy that is not tied to a capacity to pay but a capacity to spend. The city has and continues to spend beyond the capacity of its citizens to pay.
I wrote over a year ago that the province is on a multi-year path of significant financial transformation and that this will have ongoing impacts to Edmonton’s budget. I still believe this is true, and that Edmonton has several more years of belt-tightening ahead.
In the next few months, Council will be talking about different approaches to property tax. We will be talking about off-site levies that transfer more initial cost to developers, and tax-increment funding that adds a surtax to property tax in neighborhoods to support a local improvement (a replacement arena or pool for instance). We will be talking about tax forgiveness or deferral to incent commercial development.
While I welcome and look forward to all of these conversations, City Council cannot forget that more work is required to bend our spending curve. Council really needs to look at the size of government corporation our city can support, and learn to live within our means.
Last year we were able to celebrate City Council support for Phase 1 of this critical project. This year’s big news was the provincial funding announced in July in support of Phase 2 and 3, that allows the entire project to be constructed over the next four years. Without provincial support, it would have taken 4-8 additional years to get City Council approval for future construction stages, and I was not confident that those approvals would come. The provincial support for this project is fantastic news, and I really appreciate their support. More detailed information on the project can be found here.
What’s Coming in 2021
In addition to the tax pieces I mentioned earlier, there are many more important discussions and changes that will happen in 2021 related to the pandemic, Bus Network Redesign, waste pick-up, the Community & Wellbeing Task Force, and the Snow & Ice Audit to mention only a few. My commitment to you is to continue engaging with you regularly on these and other important matters that come up. My virtual Town Halls will continue next year and I will also be doing virtual community/neighbourhood specific meetings as well. Stay tuned in the new year for more information.
The next civic election will be in October 2021, and I am honoured to officially announce that I will be seeking re-election for City Council in Ward 9 again. The work of a City Councillor is extremely challenging and profoundly rewarding. It was my goal in 2017 to bring government to our community, because it's hard for ordinary working Edmontonians to get to City Hall. I have had the pleasure to meet many of you over these last 3+ years. It has been a privilege to serve our community, and I hope to be here next Christmas as your Ward 9 Councillor. Stay tuned for more information in the coming months!
And Finally ...
My office will be closed from December 17th until January 4th. If you have an urgent concern, please call the City’s Service Centre at 311.
This holiday season will also be very different for so many of us, lacking the usual traditions and gatherings that remind us who we are and where we came from. For many, missing those traditions and gatherings will be extremely challenging. And we all know that there are many of us who live alone or find the stress of this season overwhelming. This year, more than ever, we need to look out for one another. If you or someone you know is struggling and needs help, access to resources or just someone to listen, please call or text the Canadian Mental Health Association’s 24/7 information and referral line at 211. See here for more information about this fantastic community resource.
Rather than regret the traditions missed, I hope this is your year to start new traditions, new ways to gather. I hope you receive or make that call to that friend or relative you haven’t spoken to for a while. Perhaps you can take the opportunity for quiet reflection and contemplation, to complete that project you have put off, to finish that book you started. Or perhaps you will simply have the time to get outside and taste the crisp, clean air of an Edmonton winter.
However you celebrate, this year more than any other, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful and prosperous New Year! See you in 2021!