Edmonton

Pool closures, job losses possible if city council agrees to zero per cent tax increase for 2021

The City of Edmonton will aim for a zero per cent property tax increase in 2021 by cutting $64 million in operational spending, which would mean layoffs and reducing services in areas like transit.

Getting to zero increase would mean trimming $64 million from operating budget

City presents 2021 operating and capital budgets next week at council meeting. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

The City of Edmonton will aim for a zero per cent property tax increase in 2021, says a report from administration going to council.

Trimming the previously approved 3.2 per cent tax hike to zero would mean cutting $64 million from the proposed $3 billion operating budget.

That could mean layoffs for city workers, service reductions in areas like transit, and the potential closure of three low-use swimming pools and two arenas — Scona Pool, Oliver Pool, Eastglen Leisure Centre and the Oliver and Tipton arenas.

Adam Laughlin, interim city manager, said the city identified 340 employee positions that could be cut.

"That will be a combination of vacancy management and unfortunately layoffs," Laughlin said during a news conference Thursday. 

Of the full-time positions, 108 are in supervisory or middle-management, some of which have already been eliminated. 

The city currently employs 11,305 people.

Coun. Andrew Knack said council as a whole is determined to fit the zero per cent increase but a decision to cut jobs will not be easy. 

"Even recognizing people's appetite to not see a tax increase, we have to remember that there's real people behind those actual numbers," he said. 

When it comes to recreation centres, Knack said councillors may be looking for other options, noting the importance of local fitness facilities.

"As a city, we're trying to create these sort of 15 minute districts and the more you close down local recreation opportunities, the more you sort of force people to have to go out to other areas."

Knack suggested there may be unique partnerships or other ways to keep local pools and arenas open. 

Coun. Tim Cartmell said finding areas to trim is tough, noting that 11 per cent of the budget alone is paying off debt. 

"We can't stop fighting fires. We can't stop clearing snow. We can look for the efficiencies in some of those things," Cartmell said. "But honestly, there's some pretty big boulders in our budget that are unmovable."

Laughlin said administration analyzed all service areas to determine what could be altered with the lowest impact on the community. 

Proposed workforce changes account for $18.2 million that could be cut from the supplemental budget. 

Administration is also suggesting a reduction of $13.2 million in services and facilities. 

Facilities and services with low use, requiring the highest subsidies, would either be altered or closed, Laughlin said. 

Laughlin said transit service would decrease for off-peak hours when there are fewer riders.

The city has laid off 2,000 people on a temporary basis in the COVID-19 pandemic since April. 

Last spring, council had approved a 3.2 per cent increase for 2021 and 2.4 percent for 2022. 

"We are proposing a zero per cent tax increase because we understand the COVID-19 pandemic has hit our local economy hard,"  Laughlin said. "Edmonton businesses and households are facing real financial challenges. 

If passed, it would be the lowest tax increase since 1997, which was also zero per cent.

COVID-19 impacts

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being treated as a one-off and will be addressed with one-time budget strategies discussed separately in December.

Edmonton's economy is expected to contract 6.4 per cent in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to contain the spread of the virus, the city report says. 

Council could begin discussing the supplemental operating and capital budgets as early as Monday, pending scheduling of other items.

A public hearing will be held Dec. 3 before council starts to deliberate on the adjustments on Dec. 9. 

@natashariebe

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