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Candidate Q&A: Addressing St. Albert's RMR shortfall

Those running for mayor and council in St. Albert weighed in on how they might approach St. Albert's $16 million per year repair, maintenance, and replacement funding shortfall.

Send us your election questions
The Gazette has reached out to all St. Albert candidates with a list of 12 questions, and the answers will run in The Gazette each week as the Oct. 18 election approaches. Question topics touch on taxation, climate, development, funding shortfalls, business, traffic, transparency, reconciliation, the city’s Badger Lands solar-farm project, and more. Now we want to hear from you. What questions are at the top of your mind going into St. Albert’s municipal election? Email us the questions you'd like candidates to answer: [email protected].

Like many municipalities across Alberta, St. Albert is facing an infrastructure shortfall. 

Currently, the gap in funding for repair, maintenance, and replacement (RMR) of St. Albert’s existing infrastructure is estimated to land at $16 million each year. This past June, St. Albert city council heard options for setting aside money so that potholes can be filled, and bridges can be replaced. 

These options include reducing city services, increasing property taxes, or finding alternative revenue streams.

The Gazette reached out to all candidates running in the St. Albert municipal election to ask them what ideas they have for making up St. Albert’s RMR shortfall. 

Mayoral candidates had 120 words to answer the question: 

David Letourneau: Unfortunately, only addressing the shortfall isn’t an option, as this will continue to grow if the root of the issue isn’t addressed. When the municipality acquires an asset it requires money in subsequent years to repair, maintain and replace (RMR). Over the past 10 years the amount of assets the city has been acquiring has greatly outpaced the revenue it has brought in. By more closely aligning the municipal assets with the amount of revenue coming in we can achieve a better balance. This can be achieved by increasing the revenue coming in through examining the land-use practices to make St. Albert a more attractive community for businesses, along with examining the city’s municipal asset management strategy.

Angela Wood: I would first ensure the scheduling of RMR projects is on target and not because of a predetermined schedule. Our project bidding process must be evaluated for whether it is encouraging highly competitive quality bids. Before immediately implementing additional 1.5-per-cent tax increases every year, we must turn our attention inward. The shortfall number is without considering any government grants for RMR projects. While government grants vary, they would continue in some form. The first priority is to get our fiscal house in order, review how we are doing business and evaluating needs and both the cost and effectiveness of the solutions being proposed with the current budget before forcing taxpayers to shoulder this increased financial burden.

Cathy Heron: Maintaining our current infrastructure has to be a priority. This term council has made successful steps to dedicate a small piece of property taxes toward our RMR budget and we did that without raising overall taxes. The challenge is getting support for thinking outside of the box to find long-term sources of revenue, other than property taxes to provide funds for these ongoing expenses. Finding efficiencies or cutting costs (see following questions) within City Hall simply can't come close to making up for these expenses. Pennies can’t fund million-dollar projects. We need non-tax-sourced revenue. Without a change to where we generate revenue growth, capital projects such as a new pool or ice will be almost impossible to build.

Bob Russell: The first step in resolving shortfalls is to cut spending. For example, for a start, I will ask council to review the decision to fund Global Edmonton with $145,000 of our taxpayers' money. It is also apparent to me that we are subsidizing the cost of these new subdivisions, and that has to be reviewed because a possible alternative would be to make certain that developers pay the full cost of the development. Calgary is taking a hard look at how they have been handling suburban development costs because it now takes over 30 years before their new suburbs generate enough revenue to cover the original development cost. 

Council candidates had 80 words to answer the question:

Rachel Jones: There are some smart, innovative ways our city can do this without increasing taxes. Just a few ideas come to mind: improving or streamlining better collection of our municipal service fees, offering new programs and services that residents ask for, ensuring we’re collecting fines — like for our new lowered speed limits, and creating more revenue-generating projects like the solar farm. We can achieve this while also improving our city at the same time. 

Shawn LeMay: Firstly, I want to reiterate how important it is for council to listen — truly listen — to its constituents. I know that the taxpayers of St. Albert have awesome viable ideas that we must be open to hear. That said, we need to assess why we’re currently experiencing these shortfalls. Along with many other innovative ideas, I want to review how contracts are awarded and what steps are taken to ensure we are getting the best value for our tax dollars.

Leonard Wilkins: Overspending by $16 million per year is unsustainable. While I understand that public works seems to have safety as their goal, this is admirable and necessary, but we need to find lower-cost alternatives. We need to focus on our city’s needs first, and then wants (if there is any money left over). For example: We could cut costs by heavily reducing the number of walkway jut-outs (they cost about $40,000 per pair).

Sheena Hughes: The $16 million shortfall is with an expectation that the city stops using government grants for RMR projects, which is not a reasonable expectation. This creates the appearance of a larger problem to justify the extra 1.5-per-cent annual tax increase for the next 20 years. We need to re-evaluate the timing of RMR projects, the effectiveness of the proposals, and the bidding process. Council must review more critically the decision-making capital project process than has been done to date. 

Kevan Jess: First, evaluate methods, criteria, and time frames to rehabilitate and replace. Process focuses on calendars rather than condition, like changing your car’s oil every three months whether you’ve driven 500 kilometres or 15,000 kilometres. Second, evaluate type and level of assets included. Many projects seem like replacing the dishes rather than re-shingling the roof. Third, evaluate the tendency to view assessment growth funds as having to be spent on new/enhanced services rather than supporting the existing infrastructure that serves these properties.

Wally Popik: Looking at present methods being employed in construction, maintenance, and operation to identify areas of waste and redundancy is necessary. The staff we have today have a tremendous amount to offer in this regard other than employing outside consultants. There are many areas of opportunity to increase efficiency, eliminate unnecessary costs, and provide a more enjoyable workplace without reducing services, staff, or equipment. It would be a good start.

Natalie Joly: St. Albert’s 2020/21 Operational and Fiscal Review demonstrates that the municipality runs efficiently, but review recommendations must be considered as we plan our future. Of the recommendations, transformation of our procurement operating model could see the most impactful benefits, but all recommendations must be considered. Other options include reducing service levels, finding non-traditional revenue sources, or raising taxes. Residents value St. Albert service levels and do not want tax increases, so finding alternative revenue sources must be a priority.   

Joseph Trapani: According to the Municipal Government Act, a municipality can not budget a shortfall. In saying that, how do we start saving money to pay for the shortfall? First, let’s start budgeting for what is needed and not what is nice to have: council taking a pay cut of five per cent, priorities for any new project, (do one at a time), looking at what organizations are exempt from taxes and which are not.

Wes Brodhead: The funding deficiency in the budget allocation to repair, maintain, and replace existing civic infrastructure is real and immediate. Currently, a dedicated annual funding increase of 1.5 per cent to address this need has been established in the annual budget. This needs to be maintained. Additionally, full life-cycle costing is required for capital infrastructure calculations to ensure RMR requirements for a capital asset are known. Third, the RMR cost cycle for each civic asset needs to be reviewed for accuracy. 

Jennifer Cote: Firstly, the incoming council must implement a long-term financial strategy to deal with the RMR funding gap so we can avoid this situation in the future. This will include prioritizing RMRs to identify the most pressing, and delaying where feasible. We must open the books to identify where cost-effective approaches to current service delivery can be implemented, and where purse strings can be tightened. Our focus should be on maintaining existing assets before we look to develop more.

Mike Killick: Verify if the $16-million short fall is a real number or just a worst-case estimate. The budget includes $11 million per year for road repairs, review for efficiencies or savings. Possibly defer new growth projects, prioritize funds toward maintaining what we already have. The budget contains $50 million for bus replacements, examine if replacement is necessary and investigate cost savings, like leasing versus buying. Scrutinize all sources of revenue, not just the solar farm, that produce a profit to contribute to RMR.    

Shelley Biermanski: Repair, maintenance, and replacement has to be a priority where funding is concerned. Exceptional basic services are what most taxpayers expect in good value for their taxes. The wants cannot happen until the needs are funded. Shortfalls can often be recouped from unintended waste in spending or unnecessary special projects.

Ken MacKay: There is no magic bullet to meeting this challenge; however, the solution will require a great amount of financial discipline to meet the ongoing shortfall. We can no longer rely on using grant money and will need to continue to contribute sufficient funding to RMR reserves than in the past. We must prioritize capital projects and services, while exploring new ways of generating revenue sources outside of the traditional method of relying on property taxes, user fees, and grants.

Gilbert Cantin: We got there in the first place because the past councils did not manage St. Albertans’ tax money in a way to save for future. What I can do when elected is make sure every dollar spent is spent on something we as community need. Too often, the city has spent money on would-be-nice-to-have projects which were not necessities. 

Louis Sobolewski: I would review spending for new projects and separate the essential projects from the non-essential projects and then proceed with the essential projects that require immediate attention. I would then seek to extend the life of our assets by repairing them instead of replacing them, which should be enough to address the shortfall. Any amount of the shortfall still remaining would be addressed with spending reductions. These measures would remain until we get our financial affairs in order. 

Isadore Stoyko: Re-allocation of capital priorities to make up the shortfall in repair and maintenance budgets. Look at shared-space allocations and see the needs versus wants in all city department budgets and re-allocate those as well. Maintain what we have now before we purchase new. 

Donna Kawahara: It is clear that we need to find ways to reduce expenses. Preventative maintenance and upgrades to key infrastructure could extend the life cycle of some items and reduce costly repairs. We should look at if there are projects that can be put on hold to reduce expenses. We need to look for efficiencies in the budget and find new sources of revenue to cover these costs.

Mike Ferguson: I am not sure there is an RMR funding shortfall. I see a lot of unnecessary work being done all around the city. St. Albert uses extensive brickwork for sidewalks, and while pretty, it is expensive to repair. I saw two workers hammering out and replacing bricks today in front of City Hall. Last year, it was by the post office. Freshly paved streets in Oakmont. New traffic circles and road redesign.

Ross Guffei: This is the wrong question. The question presumes the shortfall is correct. There are examples that suggest otherwise. The city installed a micro-surface on Oakridge Drive two years ago. This year they replaced the asphalt with a new asphalt overlay. Council approved a one-lane addition to north St. Albert Trail, but it appears that three lanes are being built and two existing lanes are being removed. A detailed review of projects may indicate we have a spending problem.

Sandy Clark: Before any increase in residential property taxes, I want a re-evaluation on whether RMR work can be deferred or spread over longer periods of time, an evaluation of the city’s wants versus needs, a comprehensive infrastructure review (possible public-private partnerships) and an assessment to see if we have services to provide to, or receive from, other municipalities to reduce duplication and costs to both. It’s also essential to work to increase the non-residential tax component for long-term sustainability.

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