Sat. Aug 8th, 2020

Councillors at odds over budget cuts after businesses complain about looming tax hike

3 min read

Edmonton city council chambers. David_Bloom David Bloom / David Bloom/Postmedia

After hearing pleas from struggling small businesses forced to lay off employees and contemplate moving out of Edmonton, city councillors are seeking ways to reduce the approved 2.6 per cent property tax increase in 2020.

But they’re not unanimous in how far the city should go in making cuts to services and infrastructure investments. It would take $72.6 million in savings to support a tax freeze next year, a position pushed forward by the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce during the city’s budget public hearing Thursday. Current suggestions from city staff to get to this level include the closure of four recreation centres and a reduction of equipment for the city’s fire department.

One councillor is hoping to re-examine a debate around the city’s future transit system, advocating for a cheaper bus rapid transit (BRT) solution instead of continuing LRT expansions.

Ward 9 Coun. Tim Cartmell, longtime opponent of the $2.61-billion Valley Line West LRT expansion to Lewis Farms, is asking for another conversation about the merits of the project versus the costs in this time of forced fiscal restraint, due to funding cuts in the recent provincial budget.

“Freeing up the dollars dedicated to LRT will allow us to continue to build our city while also reducing your tax bill,” Cartmell said in a budget blog post Friday afternoon. “And then we have options. We could improve other LRT lines, or add other BRT lines to other corners of the city, or not spend the funds at all.”

Cartmell told Postmedia he plans to bring the project back into the spotlight during council’s budget deliberations starting Wednesday.

West-end Ward 1 Coun. Andrew Knack, who serves most of the communities where the LRT line will run, agrees there is room for the city to find savings to bring taxes down, but doesn’t think infrastructure projects should be jeopardized. He wants to look at possible savings on the operating side to bring the tax increase down to about 1.5 per cent.

“We can continue to invest in infrastructure, which I think you need to make sure you’re enhancing the quality of life so people choose to continue living in Edmonton,” he said in an interview with Postmedia ahead of the budget public hearing last week. “They want to see those amenities and services.”

Responding to the business community at Thursday’s public hearing, Mayor Don Iveson said he doesn’t support all of the city’s recommended cuts needed achieve a zero per cent tax increase, but is open to some of the suggestions in an effort to bring down the approved rate.

These discussions of fiscal restraint occurred in conjunction with funding requests from community organizations hoping to make a difference in the lives of Edmontonians, acknowledging the lack of spending wiggle room. One of these requests comes from the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, which is asking the city for $4.4 million toward a language school.

Iveson said he supports the intent and wants to champion the project, but it is unlikely the desired funding will be available this time around.

The approved tax rate for 2020 and cuts made to the budgets will be finalized next Friday. 

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