Calgary budget ‘strikes the right balance’: mayor

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WATCH ABOVE: Calgary city council has passed its budget adjustments for 2021. Adam MacVicar has the details. – Nov 26, 2020

Early Thursday evening, Calgary city council passed its budget adjustments for 2021, largely intact from what administrative officials recommended.

“In the end, we were able to provide citizens of Calgary with a 1.77 per cent tax decrease — about 1.5 per cent decrease for residential taxpayers and almost two per cent decrease for business taxpayers,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said following the four-day deliberations.

Earlier in the month, officials brought recommendations to council for the upcoming budget and those passed with little change. Administration found $90 million in savings and efficiencies, but city staff didn’t emerge untouched. The police budget remained intact. Increases to non-residential tax rates will be capped at 10 per cent.

“Thanks to a lot of really hard work by city administration, we were able to achieve that tax decrease without massive changes to the services people need every day in the midst of a pandemic,” the mayor said.

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And the budget maintained the city’s commitment to anti-racism and mental health work.

Another one-time support for businesses

Like in the previous five city budgets, city council will be softening the blow for businesses that saw their properties rise in value by capping their rise in tax rate.

Warehouses larger than 100,000 square feet were going to see a 20 per cent rise in their taxes, and some retailers were facing similar bills.

In a 12-1 vote, with only Ward 3 councillor Jyoti Gondek in opposition, council agreed to another phased tax program that will cost the city $21 million from reserves.

Gondek said the city isn’t spending what it brings in.

“We don’t look at what the pure revenue stream from property taxes is before we set a budget,” she said.

“For example, this year we generated property taxes on a decline of $6 billion on the residential side and $3 billion on the non-res(idential) side, meaning that when asset values come in lower, you generate less property tax,” Gondek said. “But we never look at that.”

Police budget stays flat

The budget for the Calgary Police Service isn’t seeing any cuts or reallocations after Thursday’s budget deliberations. However, they’re also not getting additional funds for growth positions.

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“It is just like everyone else’s budget — it is held at 2020 levels for 2021,” Nenshi said. “There was an attempt today to give them money for growth. No other department is getting growth.”

That attempt at granting CPS $10 million for 60 new positions was by Ward 2 councillor Joe Magliocca, to be funded by additional taxes. That proposal was defeated by a 5-9 vote, with only councillors Magliocca, Sean Chu, Jeromy Farkas, Diane Colley-Urquhart and Peter Demong in favour.

On Wednesday, CPS Chief Mark Neufeld told city council that the officer-to-citizen ratio is continuing its trend towards more citizens per officer.

But he also told council that CPS is planning to train 132 officers in 2021 to bring them into the service. When combined with the expected retirement of 100 officers in 2021 and the current 120 vacant positions, police doesn’t have the training capacity for the growth positions.

The CPS budget submission included foregoing the new positions and proposed reallocating $8 million to explore alternate service models that would relieve police from calls that could have better trained teams attend.

On Wednesday, Neufeld told council that police receive 24 calls a day to someone who is suicidal or “to execute a mental health warrant,” and receive 268 community safety and well-being calls per day.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from various advocacy groups as well as our own members that we’re attending to issues that are not necessarily police-related,” he said.

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Council heard about the new community safety investment framework that aims to strengthen existing crisis supports and change how city services approach persons in crisis.

Council agreed to use $8 million from the city’s strategic reserves as a seed fund for the framework, invite the police commission to contribute to the framework and reach out to other orders of government to develop a “joint-funding partnership.”

“To the point of members of the community, where the money sits is where the power lies,” Ward 8 councillor Evan Woolley said.

“The power and accountability of the money staying within the police budget, as opposed to the power and accountability of council taking that money and owning that budget, is where the disappointment will be.”

Black Lives Matter YYC president Adora Nwofor called the decision “disappointing.”

“I think that program will help some people, but this is not anywhere close to the level of change we need within this city,” Nwofor told Global News.

City staff reductions

Part of administration’s $90 million in savings was from the city’s internal Solutions for Achieving Value and Excellence (SAVE) Program, a multi-year program taking suggestions from city employees. In 2021, the program created $26 million in savings, and the stretch goal is to have a cumulative $80 million in savings by the end of 2022.

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Around 160 full-time equivalents (FTEs) will have to be eliminated from city staff either by attrition or layoffs.

CFO Carla Male said the city currently sits at 2013 staffing headcount, despite the Calgary adding 235,000 people since 2010.

Fire and emergency services is one area losing staff to the tune of 2.5 FTEs, in maintenance, fleet analysis and training.

The risk of an increasing talent and skill gap was identified in the city’s risk analysis of this budget, saying “decreased access to training and learning… can negatively impact employee morale and engagement, as well as the ability to attract and retain key talent.”

New integrity commissioner

After budget debate concluded, Nenshi announced Calgary’s new integrity commissioner, Meryl Whittaker.

A lawyer by trade, Whittaker retired from a senior position in the Alberta government in 2019 and sat on the board for the Calgary 2026 bid corporation.

“I don’t really know her very well but I tell you she has gotten rave reviews, not just from our volunteer selection committee, but from anyone who’s ever worked with her,” Nenshi said.

–With files from Global News’ Adam MacVicar

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