“The next decade will be a time in which the fiscal woes of federal and state governments will leave local and regional governments on their own, struggling to balance the need for innovation against the necessity of making tough choices… it will also be a decade in which local government will lead the way in developing creative solutions to extraordinary problems. There are a number of reasons to be optimistic about this coming decade of local government”
– Bob O’Neill, The Coming Decade of Local Government, Governing Magazine
I cannot think of a more apt summary than this. This is why our current Operating Budget debate is so important. This year we are dealing with more than a routine tune-up or tweak of our base budget where we add some new spending to existing and rational inflationary budget increases. We are in fact dealing with a four-year budget that should align our spending of the money citizens provide through their property taxes with Council’s vision and priorities. If it doesn’t, we have failed. In my view, Council’s priorities reflect the emerging pressures and opportunities for big cities.
The road to strategically aligning our budget with our priorities is not the road we are on today.
All I had to do is read the budget proposals and see that important investments in affordable housing, climate change resilience, energy transition and conservation, small business incentives in mature neighbourhoods, regional economic development, and the implementation of our infill agenda are all presently unfunded.
Of course, Council can decide to fund each of these critical initiatives but this would add to the already proposed 3.3% tax increase currently proposed by Administration. And 3.3% is already more than many can bear.
Or we could cut a few million dollars from existing services in order to make room for those important priorities, but that feels too last minute and sloppy. Last minutes cuts are often unwise. We need good evidence derived from good methodology to reduce or change resources in a service area. This was what our Program and Service Review was supposed to do – but it hasn’t done this adequately. So we may need some quick thinking in this budget to build a more focused budget.
A new path toward financial sustainability
In order to build the vibrant and financially sustainable city I believe citizens want, we need to seriously challenge the sanctity of our existing base budget. We need to begin to lead a number of sacred cows into the ring and reallocate resources to emerging priorities like the seriousness of climate change, supporting neighbourhoods through change, and to finally deal with our massive affordable housing shortage – all the while managing our tax rate to create a city competitive for investment and new business growth.
I said recently in an Edmonton Journal column that our base budget is a “yoke around the neck of our greatest ambitions.” I am not just manufacturing hyperbole here. When I look at the things that Administration has left off the table (even after Council has repeatedly prioritized them), to subject them to the whims of an unpredictable budget debate… well, I simply do not accept that process.
This process tells me that the past is paramount, the present is secondary and the future is not our priority.
We need to shift to a priority-based budget exercise for 2020-22. This is different than our Program and Service Review in a few keys ways. It can build off the recent and extensive Vision 2050 engagement work and it analyzes in detail which of our existing spending aligns with Council priorities and the things citizens need and which spending doesn’t. But mainly it positions the existing and future priorities as at least as important as old priorities and in many cases more. This is why I plan to make a motion to this effect at Council during the budget deliberations.
We can’t let the inertia get us down
Big cities are complex, expensive creatures. Edmonton is a costly city to run mainly due to our current development pattern. We are still dominated by low density development and the cost of maintaining and operating everything is more expensive at a lower density built form. Our upcoming City Plan discussions provide a huge opportunity to more aggressively shift new development investment to the core to create a higher density built form.
The Mayor has worked hard both at the provincial and federal levels to ensure sufficient investment in infrastructure and funding for social programs that fall within their jurisdiction, but while we’ve won some battles there, we’re a long way from winning the war. And as the opening quote suggests, those wells will dry further before they are replenished.
Some have said you can’t change big bureaucracies, public ones or private ones, but I don’t accept that. The inertia of things can be difficult to overcome, but ultimately we are building a city for the coming generations and we must make sacrifices today. We need to stand up to the inertia of sameness in order to find our better selves and a better city.