Alberta's big city mayors on the changes, challenges and open questions of budget 2021

Alberta's United Conservative Party deferred its anticipated "fiscal reckoning" to a future budget announcement, but budget 2021 has plenty of implications for the province's two biggest cities as recovery becomes front of mind.

Don Iveson and Naheed Nenshi dig in on the latest episode of CBC's West of Centre podcast

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, left, and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi dug into the details of the latest provincial budget on the latest episode of CBC's West of Centre podcast. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Alberta's United Conservative Party deferred its anticipated "fiscal reckoning" to a future budget announcement, but budget 2021 has plenty of implications for the province's two biggest cities as recovery becomes front of mind.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi dug into the budget on the latest episode of CBC's West of Centre podcast, offering their takes on what the road ahead looks like as Alberta rebuilds.

Iveson told Jim Brown, in for host Kathleen Petty, that in some respects, the budget was a bet against Edmonton and Calgary — something Iveson regards as a losing economic strategy.

"You know, a strong Edmonton and a strong Calgary really benefits every Albertan," he said. "A weaker Edmonton and a weaker Calgary really hurts every Albertan."

  • Listen to this week's full episode of West of Centre here:

Iveson calls budget 'disheartening'

The Alberta budget proposed nearly $62 billion in spending in the 2021-22 budget, with Alberta's finance minister predicting a $18.2-billion deficit in the coming year.

The budget also lists a reduction for municipal capital grants over the next three years.

Iveson said cuts to municipal funding for infrastructure were "disheartening," especially given other cuts in recent years.

"What's confusing for me is that we need these infrastructure jobs, and state-of-good-repair roofs on recreation centres and libraries and things like that," Iveson said. 

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said cuts to Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding would offset stimulus funding provided by the province last summer, which Iveson said could result in job losses. (City of Edmonton)

"It's not stimulative. It actually more than claws back the stimulus that was announced last year. So that's a bit of an economic head scratcher in a jobs and recovery budget."

Nenshi says budget reveals 'incoherence'

Nenshi said he echoed Iveson's confusion over cuts to municipal funding for infrastructure, especially given the stimulus program announced last year.

"The provincial government just gave us a bunch of money in late last year and said, 'Go do stimulus, and do it quickly.' In other words, build stuff and create jobs," Nenshi told West of Centre.

"And in this budget, they're taking away our ability to build stuff and create jobs."

Nenshi said the apparent confusion represented a broader issue to him.

"It's kind of the incoherence of both this budget and, I'm sorry to say, of the government as a whole," he said. "Who are they? Are they the Wildrose? Are they super fiscally conservative, or are they progressive and centrist?"

According to Nenshi, the province had an opportunity in the budget to lay out a roadmap for a post-pandemic Alberta.

"[But] they have a caretaker budget that tries to be a little bit of something to everyone and, ultimately, I think fails just about everybody," he said.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi characterized the 2021 budget as a 'caretaker budget' that failed to seize opportunities presented by the pandemic. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Supports for homelessness

Both big city mayors raised specific concerns with the provincial government's strategy when it came to providing supports for those Albertans who are experiencing homelessness.

Iveson said the provincial government failed to lay out a plan to work with Edmonton on supportive housing.

"The fiscal conservative case for housing to alleviate homelessness has been made over and over and over again," he said.

"And Alberta was once a national and international leader in this … the people with the most complex addictions and mental health challenges need supportive housing with wraparound health-care and addiction supports."

'I know how to survive in cold weather, but not everybody does’: Supporting Edmonton’s homeless as temperatures plummet

3 years ago
Duration 1:19
Boyle Street is one of several community agencies working to ensure Edmonton’s homeless are warm and safe during the brutal cold snap.

Iveson said he was puzzled to see the government "doubling down on an old Band-Aid model with shelters" in a budget that seeks to save money while achieving better outcomes.

"I don't understand what the blockage is when the fiscal case is so strong, when the moral case is so strong, when the federal government is pumping relief dollars in at 100 cents on the dollar," Iveson said. 

"If they double down on perpetuating a model of managing homelessness, that's going to be much more expensive, get poorer outcomes for taxpayers and to say nothing of the perpetual indignity to people on the margins in our communities." 

The future of the Green Line

The provincial budget didn't bring about any changes in plans for the $5.5-billion Green Line LRT mega-project, though discussions between the provincial government and city officials are ongoing.

Nenshi said the conversations continue, but the city remains confident in its analysis.

"The province is just asking a million questions, confirming the analysis, hiring more consultants who tend to confirm the analysis that we've done," he said. 

A rendering of what a Green Line bridge over the Bow River could look like, including a pedestrian walkway. The 2021 provincial budget includes $25 million for 2021-22 for the mega-project. (City of Calgary)

Nenshi said he has urged expediency in his latest conversations with the province.

"And I have had good commitments from the minister and from the premier's office that they are now committed to actually making a decision. So, fingers crossed," Nenshi said.

The next few years

As Alberta begins to conceptualize the months and years ahead, both Iveson and Nenshi said opportunities do exist should the province be willing to seize them.

"There's so much opportunity for us, but so much of that is centred in the cities, really for the benefit of all Albertans," Iveson said. "So to bet against your cities, which in some respects these budgets have done, I think is a losing economic strategy.

"[That's] compared to even other provinces that are betting on their cities as hubs of talent, hubs for investment, and places where you can get the scaling effects that you can only get in cities, that I think benefit their whole trading areas and their extended metropolitan communities." 

Nenshi said one positive emerging out of the budget was changes to the tax code that will benefit Calgary's emerging film and creative industries.

Filming takes place on The Revenant in Alberta. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the Alberta budget included changes to the tax code that will benefit Calgary's emerging film and creative industries. (Kate Fair)

"But the other [changes] we really need, [include] everything from energy and all its sources — conventional, clean, green, renewable — financial services, travel and just to transportation, tourism and so on," Nenshi said.

"We really need a government that has a coherent strategy and tactical plan on how to move on that."

  • Listen to the complete West of Centre podcast series right here.

With files from CBC's West of Centre podcast