Council approves first property tax freeze since 1997

· The Pulse
By Mack Male
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Edmonton's city council wrapped up its budget deliberations on Dec. 11, approving a property tax freeze for 2021, the first since 1997.

Adjustments to the operating and capital budgets for 2021 and 2022 passed 12-1, with Coun. Mike Nickel voting against. Reductions approved to achieve the tax increase of 0% for 2021 helped to offset an increase of 0.6% for the Edmonton Police Service, a 0.6% increase for the Valley Line LRT, and an increase of 0.3% for alley renewal.

A majority of the $56.5 million in ongoing savings proposed by administration were accepted by council, including more than $18 million in "workforce strategies" that will result in more than 300 full-time equivalent positions being cut, a majority of which will come from vacancies and attrition.

"These hardworking colleagues... will be sorely missed," Mayor Don Iveson said in a news conference. "I am so thankful for your service to our city."

Iveson said incoming city manager Andre Corbould has been asked to review additional workforce efficiencies after he starts in January 2021.

"I'd like to make clear that our work on reducing costs and supporting economic recovery will not end after these budget discussions," Iveson said.

Mayor Don Iveson and interim city manager Adam Laughlin spoke at a news conference following the budget discussions.

In addition to the amendments approved on Dec. 9, council narrowly avoided cutting the Green Shack program in part by approving a $30,000 ongoing reduction to the Councillor Common Budget. That passed 7-6, the closest vote of all the amendments, with councillors Moe Banga, Tim Cartmell, Bev Esslinger, Sarah Hamilton, Mike Nickel, and Michael Walters opposed.

Increased cash fare for transit postponed

The most heated part of the morning came in response to an amendment proposed by Coun. Aaron Paquette to use a transfer of an estimated $750,000 from the Financial Stabilization Reserve to postpone a transit fee increase from Feb. 1 to May 1.

Coun. Andrew Knack indicated support and said that after the scheduled fare increase to $3.75 took effect, Edmonton would have the highest cash transit fare in Canada.

"If it was up to me, I'd prefer to see a tax increase and not do this, but I sense that council is not prepared to go there," said Coun. Ben Henderson, who also supported the idea.

But not everyone was in favour. Hamilton said council was undermining the business plan from Edmonton Transit that it had previously approved.

"At almost every opportunity, whenever conversations have gotten difficult, and it's usually at the last minute, we have undermined their business plan," Hamilton said. "Our last minute tendency to tweak it because we get uncomfortable is just extremely poor governance."

"We have to trust the advice of the people who are operating our system."

Hamilton called for a discussion on performance-based rates and transit as a utility.

Paquette agreed a discussion was needed, but argued that raising fares would result in lower ridership, which isn't aligned with city goals. "Our administration has told us that ridership is the priority, and we will not reach this goal by rising fares," he said.

"I understand that this is not ideal, of course it isn't, we're in the middle of a pandemic," Paquette said. "Adding user fees is just a way to move money from one line to another in people's personal budgets."

The initial motion failed 5-8, but an amendment proposed by Knack limiting the postponement to cash transit fares only at a cost of $200,000 passed 8-5. The single cash fare will remain at $3.50 until May 1 while adult passes will increase from $97 to $100 effective Feb. 1.

COVID-19 continues to have financial impact

"Edmonton has been hit hard by the pandemic," said interim city manager Adam Laughlin. "But we're addressing a difficult situation with sound budgeting and some tough decisions. We've heard Edmontonians, and we're continuing to move forward with compassion and a focus on a better future."

Iveson said the decisions council made acknowledge the impact of the pandemic while "not indulging in short-termism." He suggested the approved budget would advance the recently approved City Plan.

"Though it seems endless, this pandemic is temporary, and we will emerge from it, and when we do it is essential that the city is in a good position to recover," Iveson said.