Alberta budget a 'mixed bag' for Calgary, says Nenshi

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the 2018 Alberta budget is somewhat of a "mixed bag," but said overall he's feeling good about what it signals for the future of the city.

No mention of cannabis revenue sharing, but a big boost for affordable housing

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the 2018 Alberta budget is a 'mixed bag' for Calgary. (CBC)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the 2018 Alberta budget is somewhat of a "mixed bag," but said overall he's feeling good about what it signals for the future of the city.

"There are a number of things in the budget that give me pause, but overall things are looking good," Nenshi said on Thursday.

Cut to capital funding

One of the items giving the mayor pause is the $91 million cut to Calgary's Municipal Sustainability Initiative program funding.

"Winding down MSI is worrisome, taking that cut is difficult," Nenshi said. "That cut of $91 million is going to hurt."

"Long-term there's a lot of potential here, but it's going to take a lot of work from my colleagues at the City of Calgary and at the province to get that back."

The MSI is the core capital funding program for cities, paid out annually by the province to support local infrastructure projects. 

The province is winding down targeted funding by $152 million each year, with the program slated to end in 2021-22.

Nenshi said money was borrowed a decade ago to build the West LRT on the premise the city would use future MSI money to repay those loans, and getting less money, would mean those loans will be refinanced. 

"All debt is deferred taxation with interest, and I really don't like paying interest when I don't have to," Nenshi said.

The province said in its strategic plan that it's working on replace the MSI with a new fiscal framework based on revenue sharing, a move Nenshi described as a "major step forward."

He  said revenue sharing helps with "divorcing the city from the whims of the provincial government for the things we need."

Calgary is doing its part helping the province with its deficit, Nenshi said, noting that even though the province is in debt the city actually had a small surplus in its last budget. 

"The reverse has to also be true, when the government is doing well, the cities have to do well," he said. 

No cannabis revenue share

The mayor also said he was disappointed not to see any mention of cannabis revenue sharing with municipalities.

"I'm surprised to see that hasn't been done yet, even though the federal government has been clear that the 75/25 split is so that money can flow through to the municipalities," he said, referring to the agreement that would give provinces and territories 75 per cent of the excise tax collected on cannabis sales for the first two years after it is legalized.

Legislation later this year is expected to cost Calgary at least $10 million to cover zoning changes, bylaw enforcement and policing to catch impaired drivers. 

The disappointment was echoed by Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.

"Because [marijuana is] going to become legal some time this year, we're going to realize those costs some time this year. We can absorb a certain amount in transition, but realistically, if that's downloaded on us permanently, that's going to be politically very problematic for the province and the federal government," Iveson said. 

Affordable housing investments

However, Nenshi said he was heartened to see more funds pledged for affordable housing and for the Calgary Housing Company.

"I'm very, very happy to see in what is a tough budget, to see an increase in affordable housing ... we owe these people an ability to live in a safe and decent place and I'm glad to see the province understands that," he said.

Nenshi called the announcement of 400 new affordable housing units for the city critical for addressing the demand.

The budget earmarked $256 million to support 47,000 households in securing affordable housing, including $132 million for families and seniors, $68 million for rental assistance and $16 million targeted toward special needs housing. 

It also announced $25 million for the new Affordable Housing Energy Savings Program, which will retrofit buildings to make them more environmentally and financially sustainable for housing providers and tenants. 

A long-term transit plan

Funding was also confirmed for continued work on the southwest ring road, and in addition to the $3 billion promised for LRTs in Calgary and Edmonton, the government has promised to work with both cities on a long-term transit plan. 

"For years we operated with only an ad-hoc public transit strategy. Money will come, we'll find a project on the shelf, and we'll build it," Nenshi said. "I was thrilled to see a commitment to an even longer-term transit funding program that I hope will allow us to complete the green line and build our other transit priorities we've identified in the Route Ahead."

Other infrastructure projects that were funded included the continued work on the Calgary Cancer Centre, the expansion of the Calgary Zoo, an expansion to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, upgrades to the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, upgrades to the University of Calgary's MacKimmie complex and WinSport's sliding tracks. 

No Olympic bid funds yet

One item that was missing from the budget was any funding for a Calgary bid for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Nenshi said council will likely stop its bid if no provincial or federal funding is announced.

"I continue to be very confident that both the provincial and federal government will come to the table," he said.

With files from Scott Dippel, Diane Yanko