Edmonton·CBC Explains

What got funded — and what didn't — in Edmonton city council's budget debate

City council wrapped up three weeks of gruelling budget deliberations on Friday. The 2023-26 capital and operating budgets will steer how the city spends its money over the next four years — and ultimately determine how much tax property owners will end up paying.

Environmental initiatives, on-demand transit, affordable housing add funding through amendments

A city skyline lit up at night, with curving roads and a river valley in the foreground.
Emotions sometimes ran high through meetings stretching up to 12 hours as councillors dissected the proposed budgets handed to them by administration. (David Bajer/CBC)

City council wrapped up three weeks of gruelling budget deliberations on Friday.

The 2023-26 capital and operating budgets will steer how the city spends its money over the next four years — and ultimately determine how much tax property owners will end up paying.

The capital budget determines spending on new buildings and other infrastructure, plus maintenance on existing infrastructure. The operating budget allocates annual funding for city branches and their programs and services.

This cycle comes after a tax freeze in 2021 and 1.9 per cent increase in 2022 in the wake of the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the city's finances.

Emotions sometimes ran high through meetings stretching up to 12 hours as councillors dissected the proposed budgets handed to them by administration: a $7.75-billion capital budget and an operating budget amounting to $3.3 billion in spending for the next year, increasing to $3.5 billion in 2026.

"We worked really, really hard to ensure we are looking at everything we could reduce — at the same time, continue to invest in public services, like enhancing public transit, snow removal, invest in affordable housing, take action on climate change," Mayor Amarjeet Sohi told reporters after the budgets were approved.

In amendments made throughout deliberations, the capital budget grew to $7.9 billion while the operating budget's figures remained similar.

However, the proposed 3.9 per cent property tax increased to just under five per cent for each of the next four years.

Here are some winners and losers from the financial reckoning.

Green initiatives

When the proposed budgets were released, environmental advocates were critical of the number of green initiatives left unfunded even as Edmonton's first carbon budget predicted the city would miss its emission reduction targets.

Council approved several amendments to bolster the city's environmental efforts:

  • $53 million in deep energy retrofits to city facilities in support of climate resiliency.

  • $11.2 million to buy emissions-neutral city vehicles.

  • $34 million to expand the district energy network.

  • $5 million to fund the energy transition strategy.

  • $1.5 million to partially fund energy transition implementations in support of the strategy.

  • $2 million operating budget by 2026 for implementation of the climate adaptation strategy

After hours of debate, council also voted 9-4 to approve $100 million over four years for planning, designing and delivering the Bike Plan Implementation.

A guide for the implementation recommends near-term network priorities to improve connections of the existing network and extend connections into areas under-served by active transportation infrastructure.

Affordable housing and homelessness

Affordable housing and addressing homelessness are priorities for this council. Although the proposed budget earmarked $26.25 million in previously-approved affordable housing land acquisition and site development, there were still a number of initiatives left unfunded.

Council made several amendments:

  • $22.9 million more to acquire land for affordable housing projects.

  • $18.7 million more, on an ongoing basis, for affordable housing and homelessness prevention.

  • Funding the affordable housing grant program with around $6 million next year and onwards, with an additional $500,000 in 2024.

Council also reduced the encampment response to remove all funding except for an ongoing $1.2 million for camp clean-up. The reductions add up to about $11 million over four years.

Administration

The largest cut to the operational budget came from an amendment package introduced by Sohi. It directs city administration to cut $60 million over four years as it undergoes a comprehensive corporate review.

The amendment requires administration to reduce spending each year by a minimum of $15 million through hiring restraints for non-frontline vacant positions, reducing consultant use and fees, and reviewing layers of accountability and internal facing services — all without impacting front-line services.

Administration will also identify at least $240 million that can be freed up for use in priority areas of housing, climate change, public transit and core services. A draft scope of that work is expected at council on Jan. 25.

Snow clearing

This summer, council added a one-time $4.7 million to the parks and roads services branch to implement enhanced snow and ice control for 2022. The total budget for snow clearing was just under $62 million.

The budget for snow-clearing next year was set at $56.9 million. During budget debate, council approved a $4-million increase for 2023, on an ongoing basis, with additions over the coming years for an increase of $11 million by 2026. That still only accounts for 20 per cent of what the enhanced snow-clearing program would cover if fully funded.

The package's description promises an increased level of service, including more parking ban and sidewalk enforcement, more efficient sandboxes, and expanding windrow-free zones in front of schools on both sides of the road.

Regional transit

Council opted not to provide $13 million in annual funding to the Edmonton Metropolitan Transit Services Commission, which was set up last year after nearly a decade of work toward an integrated regional transit service.

Routes would have linked Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, St. Albert, Leduc, Beaumont and Devon.

The move puts the future of the commission in serious jeopardy. If it is dissolved, it could cost Edmonton up to $15 million.

On-demand transit

Last year, on-demand transit launched as a way to fill gaps found after the implementation of the bus network redesign. On-demand was funded until April 2023, with the future left unfunded in the proposed operating budget.

Council voted to give the service permanent funding with additional money for the transit branch amounting to $11.9 million by 2026. A further $4.9-million in operational funding by 2026 will go to off-peak conventional bus service and on-demand service growth.

Police funding

About 15 per cent of the city's total operating expenditures will go to the Edmonton Police Service in 2023.

The capital budget highlights $77.6 million for Edmonton police. That includes a previously-approved $13.6 million to repair police headquarters and $30.6 million for pay-as-you-go money out of the police operating budget rather than a capital allocation.

Edmonton police previously said the proposed capital spending left many critical projects unfunded. The police commission had recommended the city spend $132 million for growth and renewal projects, including the pay-as-you-go money needed for vehicle replacements.

About $32 million had been requested for capital growth projects but only $11.8 million was approved, for IT systems. Although Coun. Karen Principe proposed multiple amendments for additional funding toward IT and equipment, all were defeated.

For capital renewal projects, $17 million was approved — only about a quarter of new funding requested.

Chinatown improvements

A unanimous approval of $10 million to go toward improvements to Chinatown infrastructure, including the planning, design and delivery of 97th Street and 107A Avenue streetscapes and McCauley neighbourhood renewal streetscapes.

Animal control and the zoo

The Animal Care and Control Centre is getting a $3.34-million increase next year and $560,000 in 2024 as it deals with an increasing number of stray, lost or unwanted animals.

The centre took over animal care duties under the provincial Animal Protection Act after the Edmonton Humane Society abandoned the contract in early 2019.

The Edmonton Valley Zoo also saw some changes to its capital plans. The second phase of a redevelopment plan saw its funding reduced by $49.5 million but capital for renewal and enhancement of enclosures increased by $25 million.

Rehabilitation and demolition

Some capital projects were sent to the chopping block. The 100th Street pedestrian bridge, which had been earmarked to receive $17.6 million, was halted.

Councillors also voted unanimously to reduce the budget for the High Level Bridge rehabilitation project by $70 million, which means the city won't develop the upper deck into a multi-modal path.

Meanwhile, $35 million will go toward finally demolishing the Coliseum, which closed at the end of 2017.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Cook

Reporter

Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.

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