Calgary

Calgary council OKs plan for $1.5B in capital projects, including new arena, but keeps details secret

Calgary city council approved a funding strategy for all four of the city's capital projects after a long day of debate behind closed doors, but some councillors expressed concern that the public would not be told how much money will be spent, or where that money will come from.

Multiple councillors raised alarm secrecy could impact discussions around other financial decisions

Calgary council voted to approve a funding source and a new negotiating framework on an arena to replace the aging Saddledome on Monday, but didn't make public the amount or source of the funds. (Robson Fletcher)

Calgary city council approved a funding strategy for all four of the city's major capital projects after a long day of debate behind closed doors, but some councillors expressed concern that the public would not be told how much money will be spent, or where that money will come from.

On Monday night council voted 11-4 in favour of the funding strategy, which approves a source and amount of funds for all four of the city's unfunded long-term major projects:

  • The new arena.
  • The fieldhouse.
  • The BMO Centre expansion.
  • Phase one of Arts Commons.

The vote approved the spending, but offered no details on timelines or how the city plans to get the money.

The city would not have to pick up the entire bill for construction of these four projects, which could come with a total price tag in the $1.5-billion range. Funding from other levels of government, the private sector and others sources would also likely be involved.

Council also voted 11-4 to approve a new framework that will restart negotiations with Calgary Flames ownership for a new arena.

Some councillors expressed deep concerns that there was so much secrecy surrounding the funding.

There are deep concerns about our liquidity, our credit rating, our ability to support the business community at large.- Coun . Evan Woolley

"We're moving over a billion dollars around and there's no ability for us to make other financial decisions and have that discussion in an open and thoughtful way in coming months and I am deeply concerned by that," said Coun. Evan Woolley in advance of the vote, adding that Calgarians should be worried too.

City chief financial officer Carla Male on Monday council that she'd only be comfortable moving forward with one of the four projects, saying the city needs liquidity with both economic uncertainty and an upcoming provincial election on the horizon.

"We cannot in a fiscally responsible way undertake these and our chief financial officer has told us that … There are deep concerns about our liquidity, our credit rating, our ability to support the business community at large through tax relief," Woolley said.

Sources, amount of funds kept secret

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the exact numbers involved in the proposal couldn't be made public, as it could harm negotiations.

But there was unease from some councillors voting on such a major deal, the day before a finance committee meeting that will see council eyeing whether or not to raise business and property taxes.

Coun. Peter Demong asked Male if the sources of funds could be made public, if not the amounts, and was shot down.

This does not commit us to a suicide mission.- Coun . Gian-Carlo Carra

Woolley also suggested the new arena deal would be more advantageous to the Flames than the previous deal, which collapsed amid acrimonious negotiations in 2017.

But Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, who voted in favour of the motion, said if the deals on each of the four projects aren't right, council's hands aren't tied.

"We've got off-ramps, we've got escape hatches, we've got opportunities," he said.

"This does not commit us to a suicide mission."

Hours of closed-door debate

Council first went into closed session around 3:45 p.m. Monday to wrap up debate on the negotiations framework for a new arena to replace the aging Saddledome, after spending hours behind closed doors discussing the topic last week.

They briefly emerged around 5 p.m. for what became a heated discussion on the rules of in-camera discussions, with Coun. Jeff Davison expressing frustration that the meeting was dragging on.

Nenshi accused Davison of being "remarkably disingenuous" for his position, which was to keep time limits in place for each councillor to speak during closed-door debate.

"You're now accusing me of being disingenuous for the law we have in front of us," Davison interrupted.

Council voted to remove time limits on debate, and ducked back behind closed doors yet again, but not before Nenshi could take a jab at Coun. Jeromy Farkas, who has been an outspoken critic of secret council sessions.

"I just want everyone to be very aware of the fact Coun. Farkas just voted to spend more time in camera," the mayor said, prompting some laughs from his colleagues.

When Council emerged from the closed session for the final time before the vote, there was confusion over exactly how much — or how little — could be said publicly.

"I have a hard time framing my question because I don't even know what I'm allowed to ask," Farkas said, during the debate. 

He said the funding will pull from a variety of different sources that could impact everything from property taxes to flood readiness to the Green Line.

"I too am uncomfortable with the level of confidentiality here," said Nenshi.

Clarifications

  • The headline on this story has been amended and a new paragraph added to make it more clear that the city is not the only funding source for these four projects.
    Mar 06, 2019 10:11 AM MT

About the Author

Sarah Rieger

Reporter

Sarah Rieger joined CBC Calgary as an online journalist in 2017. You can reach her by email at sarah.rieger@cbc.ca.

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