Tricky decisions ahead as council dives into budget deliberations

· The Pulse

As city council begins its budget deliberations on Oct. 31 with a first look at the capital budget, it's a good time to remember that every decision has consequences and trade-offs.

Episode 196 of Speaking Municipally explores a few of the tough choices ahead. For example, administration has recommended scaling back the Lewis Farms Recreation Centre by cutting a diving pool and shrinking a pool from 50 metres to 25 metres to save $58 million on the project that had been approved at a budget of $311 million. Given the budgetary constraint that council finds itself in, it seems to make some sense to fund the basics rather than the bells and whistles, suggested co-host Troy Pavlek.

"In terms of the ability of a family to go to the recreation facility and enjoy it, I don't think administration is proposing cutting those things," he said. "But in terms of making this a facility that could be a host to competitions and a 'world-class recreation facility,' that may be on the chopping block."

But Nakota Isga Coun. Andrew Knack said changing the plan now may incur further costs and delay the construction of a much-needed amenity. That resonated with co-host Mack Male. "There's a whole bunch of knock-on effects that they need to consider when they make these decisions," he said.

Trade-offs were also involved when council decided to close the Scona Pool, given the deteriorating state of the facility. The decision was not popular with those who use the Queen Alexandra neighbourhood's pool, and a group is raising money to try to keep it open until the construction of the Rollie Miles Recreation Centre (about which there is a public information meeting on Nov. 1).

The desire to keep the Scona Pool open is understandable, but it's going to take a lot of money to repair the pool and run it until its replacement is ready, Male said.

"There's also the liability and insurance costs," added Pavlek. "A non-profit society that is funded only by donors from individuals and has less than a million dollars in the bank going to be hard-pressed to operate a pool facility without insurance backing from the city. And it does not sound like the city wants to insure this."

A rendering of the proposed training pool deck at the Lewis Farms Facility and Park

As part of its capital budget deliberations, city council will decide whether to shave $58 million from the budget for the approved Lewis Farms Recreation Facility by changing the facility's pool designs. (City of Edmonton)

The operating budget will be full of complex decisions as well. For example, executive committee asked administration to return to council with a revised policy allowing everyone under 13 to ride transit free after considering a report on the costs of free transit for riders who are 18 and under.

The compromise of letting all kids 12 and under ride free instead of just those who are accompanied by adults seemed like a smart way to reduce red tape, if nothing else, said Pavlek.

"I think it is a pretty ridiculous fare policy to say it is free as long as someone else is paying with you," he said. "So this seems like a sensible change."

Executive committee balked at extending free fares to all minors, however, as the estimated revenue loss would have been $20 million per year. Another way to frame that, however, is that "the city currently extracts $20 million a year from youth and from families who are unable to afford the Edmontonian way of getting around, which is a car," said Pavlek.

And given the goal of the City Plan to decrease car dependency, it may be a wise investment to get more people into the habit of taking transit.

"If you establish transit ridership as a youth, you're more likely to have transit ridership for life, you're more likely to not buy the first car when you're in university," Pavlek said. "So I do wonder how much we're cutting our nose to spite our face by saying we'll save $20 million a year by making it more difficult for these youth to ride our buses."

Male agreed that such a reframing is interesting, but suspects it will be a non-starter. "I just think in the budget situation that we find ourselves in, that's a pretty tall order," he said, noting that free transit for some would increase unfunded demand. "It would cost more money in order to have more people using the bus, which is ultimately what we should be funding, but is a consideration that needs to be made around budget time."

Hear more takes on city hall matters such as the suspension of the municipal census, a possible crackdown on illegal surface parking lots, the long-awaited 170 Street pedestrian bridge, and a contest to name the city's snow plows on the Oct. 27 episode of Taproot's civic affairs podcast.