Edmonton

Staff vacancies, 'favourable weather' behind Edmonton's $20M surplus in 2019

The City of Edmonton posted a $20-million operating surplus in its 2019 budget, in part by holding off on filling vacant staff positions and spending less than expected on snow and ice control, city council heard at a meeting Monday.

City took in less than expected in transit fares, construction permits, taxes

The City of Edmonton saved $15.5 million in leaving positions vacant in fire rescue, fleet and facility, transit and the open city and technology branches in 2019. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

The City of Edmonton posted a $20-million operating surplus in its 2019 budget, in part by holding off on filling vacant staff positions and spending less than expected on snow and ice control, city council heard at a meeting Monday.

"The City of Edmonton is responsibly managed and a $20-million surplus, which is small in the grand scheme of things, is a reflection of that tight management," Mayor Don Iveson told reporters outside council chambers at city hall Monday. 

The city spent $2.44 billion on operating costs instead of the $2.52 billion it budgeted for last year, managers outlined in a update to council. 

But the municipality also took in millions less than it had anticipated in areas like transit, recreation facilities, construction permits and taxes.

Part of the surplus came from $9.7 million in savings in snow and ice control "as a result of favourable weather conditions and efficiencies achieved in the snow and ice management process," the budget report said.

However, January and February saw more snow, which will show up in the financial results for 2020, Iveson said.

Staff positions left vacant

The city also saved $15.5 million in holding off in filling staff vacancies in fire rescue services, transit, fleet and facility branches and the open city and technology department.

Coun. Aaron Paquette questioned whether holding the line on hiring is slowing down fire crews' response times. 

"If we are reducing personnel, what does that do to our ability to actually respond to emergencies?"

Rob Smyth, deputy city manager of Citizen Services, said the savings came from delaying a class of fire recruits. 

"[It] absolutely does not impact our response times at all," Smyth said during the meeting. "We have absolutely the same number of staff actively in the halls as we speak." 

The losses

The city took in $3 million less than anticipated in transit fares, as "ridership levels remain below expectations," and generated $3.5 million less from admissions and rentals at recreation facilities, the operating budget update says. 

The city lost $7 million after the province reduced its grant in lieu of taxes to the city by 25 per cent in the 2019 Alberta budget. 

The city spent $8 million in unexpected costs to cover benefits for staff on long-term disability.

Oil prices and the province

The positive budget news for the city was dampened by the uncertainty in international stock markets Monday amid growing fears of COVID-19. 

Coun. Mike Nickel asked administration to check with suppliers to figure out whether materials for big projects will be delayed in parked containers overseas. 

"To not be concerned would be foolish; I think it would be reckless," Nickel said. "And so you just have to start thinking now, in six months to a year down the road, where are we going to be?"

Iveson said council will consider budgets carefully in the coming months. 

"We'll be looking at all of our estimates and all of our assumptions in the coming weeks and months here as things get disrupted." 

Paquette suggested the city consider encouraging the province to change its approach to budgeting.

"Can we actually adequately base a budget on a volatile commodity? Probably not, we have to look at different ways of doing things." 

At the end of 2018, the city posted a deficit of $2.4 million. 

@natashariebe

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