In a 12-1 vote, Edmonton councillors passed the 2021 budget which, for the first time in 24 years, won’t include a tax increase.
“We know people are hurting and that’s why zero per cent is the right decision,” Mayor Don Iveson said.
“We’ve heard from residents, businesses and partner organizations that they’re feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its financial impact.
“In the end, council and administration worked together to achieve a zero per cent tax levy — the lowest since 1997.
“We did this while also ensuring we are able to keep investing in assets and services that will allow Edmonton to emerge, post-COVID, a healthy, urban and climate-resilient city that supports a prosperous metro region. In other words, to advance the City Plan we passed earlier this week,” Iveson said.
The difficult budget debate wrapped late Friday morning.
“These are challenging times,” Councillor Bev Esslinger said. “Reduced revenue and increased expenses and this budget reflects that.
“We’re not going make everyone happy with this budget but we did our best.
“It wasn’t easy,” she added, thanking all the branches, including the library, that tightened their budgets.
“We all came together to make this budget possible. We also heard from the public about the value of some of the services we offer… We also heard about the financial situations of some of our residents,” Esslinger said.
“Did we get it right? I’m not sure. But we did our best. And we’ll work together to adjust if we made mistakes.”
Initially, a 3.2 per cent tax increase was proposed, with nearly $57 million in reductions. Initial budget recommendations suggested the closure of several community amenities but council unanimously voted to keep pools at Oliver, Scona and Eastglen, as well as the arenas at Oliver and Tipton, open for 2021.
Council discussed operating budget adjustments totalling $64 million, with ongoing reductions of $56.5 million to department budgets and $7.5 million in forecast adjustments, ultimately approving $49.9 million in budget reductions to department budget.
Council approved most of the cost-reducing proposals from administration, but chose to continue funding:
- Five recreation facilities in 2021: Eastglen and Scona Leisure Centres, Oliver Outdoor Pool and Oliver and Tipton Arenas
- The spay and neuter program at the Animal Care and Control Centre
- The Community Investment Operating Grants for an additional year
- All planned service hours for Edmonton Transit’s Bus Network Redesign, turf maintenance service levels and Green Shack programming in spring, fall and winter
These programs are able to continue while still maintaining a zero per cent tax increase for 2021 as a result of additional budget savings, including the Edmonton Public Library offering a reduction to its annual tax-levy funding, other budget reductions, and use of one-time funding sources.
The biggest thing from this budget for Edmontonians, Iveson said, is “they’ll notice the property tax remain even.”
He explained firefighters and police will respond when needed and the grass will still be cut — though perhaps a bit later in the season than usual.
“It’s just a lot of nips and tucks and optimizations,” Iveson said.
“I think we’re still doing a lot of renewal and maintenance,” Councillor Andrew Knack said. “I think we’re still doing quite a bit of growth projects, not of all them, which is sad.
“But, we are maintaining most of our programs and services.”
The budget will result in some cuts, including more than 300 positions within the city which will be eliminated.
“Edmonton has been hit hard by the pandemic,” interim city manager Adam Laughlin said. “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 stressed citizens should not expect zero tax increases in future years as it would erode services and infrastructure.
He said the expected tax increase for the 2022 budget is 1.6 per cent.
“Which is really inflation coverage in that year,” Iveson said. “The next council after the election will have an opportunity to look at that and make adjustments.”
Councillor Mike Nickel was the sole “no” vote on the budget.
The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce said it “strongly supports” the approved 2021 budget.
“We commend city council for approving the zero per cent tax increase. This is welcome news as so many businesses prepare to close their doors this weekend due to new restrictions,” said Janet Riopel, the chamber’s president and CEO.
The group is also encouraging the city to continue looking at third-party partnerships to operate recreation centres to reduce the city’s operating and maintenance costs. The chamber applauded the city’s work to find efficiencies.