Budget in the time of COVID-19: Edmonton council ponders project priorities

Construction projects around Edmonton are on course to continue for now but some projects may be in peril as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.

'It's going to hurt,' mayor Don Iveson says of possible cutbacks to infrastructure

Neighbourhood renewal programs like this one in Old Strathcona may be at risk of delays as the city revisits its capital budget for 2019-2022. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

With warmer temperatures, the clatter of construction continues around Edmonton but some infrastructure projects could be put on hold as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers.

During a council meeting Monday, city managers presented a spring update on the $9.6-billion capital budget for 2019-22 — similar to the budget council approved in December. 

City councillors are skeptical that the city will be able to afford all the projects.

Mayor Don Iveson introduced a motion that city administration analyze the infrastructure plan, determine priority projects and report back to council with a list of possible cutbacks. 

"It's going to hurt," Iveson said.

Iveson said the provincial and federal government have yet to come through with reliable financial aid, which municipalities requested more than a month ago.  

"Doesn't mean we should cut infrastructure, it doesn't mean we want to cut infrastructure precisely when the jobs are needed," he said during the meeting. 

"However, if we are pushed into austerity on the operating budget that we will have to look at our options on the infrastructure side."

Two city councillors and Mayor Don Iveson, in middle, typically attend council meetings in person while others join through video conferencing. (City of Edmonton)

Council is expected to resume debating Iveson's motion when the meeting continues on Tuesday. 

Since December, the finance department has added a few items to the 2019-22 capital budget, which council may approve or deny.

The department is requesting $2 million to follow through with council's controversial decision in March to reduce the speed limit to 40 km/h in residential zones across Edmonton. 

The proposed budget includes $1.3 million for street safety, such as improving traffic signals, and $1.3 million to replace fire rescue service equipment. 

Also included is a request for $30 million to complete the city's Enterprise Systems Transformation Program initially approved last June. The ESTP aims to modernize the city's processing capacities by integrating systems in a cloud platform. 

Not new money but updated projects needing council approval include $128 million for neighbourhood renewal, $36 million to widen Yellowhead Trail between 61st Street and the North Saskatchewan River and nearly $12 million to upgrade the Confederation leisure centre and arena. 

Coun. Tony Caterina said he was expecting to see some major reductions in the capital and operating budgets at least for 2020 and possibly 2021.

"Regardless of what council approved — even three months ago — things have changed considerably," Caterina said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that the cash flow is going to be there in September. I don't think that's how we should be planning going forward." 

Interim city manager Adam Laughlin said the message from all levels of government, including the province and Ottawa, has been that investment will help keep the economy going. 

"To be frank, we've heard it here," Laughlin told council. 

Laughlin noted that he has been asked, during council's emergency advisory committee meetings: While the roads are quiet, why aren't we out there doing more infrastructure renewal? While the facilities are closed why aren't we out there doing more facility renewal?

"So our recommendation was brought forward on the basis of the ability to contribute to the economy," he said.

Councillors suggested a number of amendments to the capital budget, slated for debate Tuesday. 

It includes Coun. Jon Dziadyk's idea for the city to delay rolling out the speed-limit reduction program by a year. 

Coun. Mike Nickel also called for the city to delay, for a year, nearly $13 million in planned upgrades around city hall.



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