City finances: What Edmonton voters want municipal election candidates to consider

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring
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Edmontonians want to know how candidates running in this fall’s municipal election would fund the city's long-term plans if elected.

That's what Taproot heard in the first of eight listening sessions prompted by the People's Agenda, a document that’s being compiled based on the responses to this question: What key issue do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why? Taproot's first listening session asked attendees to participate in a discussion about the city’s finances.

Resoundingly, participants said they want the city to look into raising money — finding new streams of revenue or expanding existing ones — to fund projects and not rely exclusively on cuts to balance its budget.

Tax strategies

One participant brought up that Edmonton's City Plan emphasizes keeping tax increases to a minimum, and wondered whether that makes sense because the plan also includes ambitious and possibly expensive goals related to housing and transit. To ensure these goals are not postponed indefinitely, city council may want to keep tax increases on the table, the participant said.

Other potential tax strategies were mentioned, like creating property tax brackets based on density, which has the potential to raise revenues and contribute to the City Plan's goals of developing denser areas. Or, re-examining property tax exemptions for urban farms.

The event kicked off with host Chris Chang-Yen Phillips asking the participants why they chose to attend. (Emily Rendell-Watson/Taproot Edmonton)

The event kicked off with host Chris Chang-Yen Phillips asking the participants why they chose to attend. (Emily Rendell-Watson/Taproot Edmonton)

Mack Male, co-founder of Taproot and an Edmontonian who has been paying close attention to and writing about city council for more than a decade, helped explain the complexities of municipal finances in an interview with Chris Chang-Yen Phillips at the beginning of the event.

Male made the point that taxes are not the government's only source of revenue — it also collects transit fares and fees for city-owned amenities like recreation centres. A few attendees said they’d want candidates to look into expanding those types of revenue streams by investing in tourist attractions and encouraging travel to the city.

However, it might be difficult for the city to only consider its own revenue streams as a means to raise money. Male mentioned that municipalities are reliant on other orders of government for large shares of their budgets.

"About 8 cents of every (tax) dollar goes to municipal governments," he said.

Advocacy

Citizens also want to know how candidates plan to lobby the provincial government for support. The province is cutting funds for municipal infrastructure by 25% over the next three years, and participants wondered whether city council will or should fight for provincial funds, or pursue more independent ways of financing operations and capital projects, especially in areas that are a shared responsibility between the different levels of government, like housing.

"I don't know if people want their candidates to be fighting the provincial government," said one participant. "There has to be a balance between looking to the province for help, and just getting the work done yourself."

Police budget

A few Edmontonians also brought up nationwide campaigns to defund the police — which the province's justice minister warned mayor's not to pursue, threatening cuts to grants for municipalities last fall.

Participants wanted to know whether candidates will continue to re-examine the city’s police budget after the current council cut it by $11 million last summer, how much of the police budget is actually within council's control, and where else the money could be spent.

Whether its police budgets, tourism, or tax policy, participants wanted to know how the city could finance itself, relying less on support from other levels of government.

Taproot’s People's Agenda listening sessions will take place weekly until the end of April. The next session on March 18 will be a discussion about concerns related to quality of life in Edmonton and what the mayor and councillors to be elected this fall can and should do about it. Those interested in participating can register online.