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Public arts funding used to tackle $7-million COVID-19 deficit

Two projects, arts event cancelled this year
St. Albert Place
STOCK-St. Albert Place in St. Albert.

Some public arts funding the city had expected to spend this year will be used instead to help St. Albert handle an approximate $7-million shortfall in its operating budget from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff identified $7.3 million in savings in a report to council on June 15, which council approved the majority of. Two public art projects have been cancelled and other arts funding has been reduced, allowing $337,100 to be reallocated to the city's operating budget.

Council transferred $227,100 from the city's public art reserve to the 2020 general operating budget and cancelled the $30,000 Butterfly Project as well as the $80,000 Northridge gazebo project.

Councillors also passed an amendment unanimously – though not without regret – from Coun. Natalie Joly to cancel the Mayor's Celebration of the Arts awards, saving the city around $18,000. The March event had originally been postponed until November.

"I hate 2020," Joly said. "We're cancelling a lot of events that are beloved to the community ... I just don't see it going ahead. This is being proactive to make sure we have that $18,000 available to use elsewhere."

City staff will explore potential impacts to the Night of the Artists event, which usually coincides with the Celebration.

Heron said the city will also explore other ways of recognizing Carol Watamaniuk, who had been named the Artist of the Year.

Department cuts

To avoid reliance on taxpayers, city councillors looked at other ways to internally drive down the loss, including carving a majority of the savings – $5.9 million – out of the city's departmental budgets. That comes from staff vacancies, deployments and layoffs, leadership team vehicle allowances, elimination of a corporate vacancy pool, learning and development, and savings from closed buildings and suspended services. 

"These expense reductions consider the current financial situation of the city and the changing priorities which require existing resources to be shifted to emergent needs," said Diane McMordie, director of finance.

However, an earlier reopening of city facilities, coupled with restrictive programming, could result in an even larger deficit than originally projected, McMordie said. More detailed financials could come by mid-July.

"It may not be worse, but we need the opportunity to look at that."

Transit study axed

The city has reallocated $543,400 in operating carry-forwards to this year's general operating budget to offset the deficit.

Carry-forwards ensure the city has adequate funding for multi-year projects, and a June 15 agenda report noted those funds would no longer be available for initiatives such as the city's intermunicipal affairs committee with Sturgeon County, a transit feasibility study and Erin Ridge's traffic committee. A full list of funding reductions can be found here.

Mayor Cathy Heron tried to save the transit feasibility study, which was meant to investigate how students use transit and whether schools could swap their yellow buses for public transit instead. She put a motion forward to continue the study after hearing from chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble about possible shared efficiencies between schools and the city.

Coun. Sheena Hughes questioned whether such an integration would save school boards money, given current student demands for city transit. Coun. Wes Brodhead also questioned the value of the study if it was done right away.

Heron's motion failed 2-4 (Heron, Coun. Natalie Joly in favour; Coun. Jacquie Hansen absent).

The city's integrity commissioner was also set to see a $10,000 reduction for active investigations, but Joly made a motion to remove it from the list of cuts, which council passed as a friendly amendment.

Grants tabled

Councillors deferred a decision to June 29 on whether to reduce funding to $153,900 worth of operating grants. 

This would involve cuts for funding to council member sponsorship grants, the city's microgrant program, athlete and artist development grants, and environmental initiatives grants.

Councillors reallocated $5,000 that remained in the city's inclusive hiring program to general operating as well – money that, prior to the pandemic, had originally been meant to be used for staff training or wages for casual employment of a person with disabilities in 2020.

"The limited dollars remaining would make it difficult to action in a meaningful way in 2021," McMordie said in an email to the Gazette.

Joly made a motion to keep $8,200 in environmental initiatives grants, which failed in a tie vote (Heron, Joly, Coun. Wes Brodhead in favour).

"It's not that we're against the environment – it's just that sometimes (cuts have to be made)," Hughes said, noting applications wouldn't have been accepted until the fall.

Diversity and Inclusion funding retained

Council unanimously agreed to keep funding for the Diversity and Inclusion art project, which staff had suggested should take a $44,900 reduction. That cut would have left $45,000 in its budget.

Cutting it back could reflect poorly on the city's dedication to diversity and inclusion, said Joly, who put forward a motion to keep it fully funded.

"Because this project is a symbol to all of our residents that they are valued, cutting it would make some of our most marginalized residents – especially LGBTQ+ youth – feel like all our talk of being inclusive means nothing," Joly said.

As movements against systemic racism and violence gain momentum in Canada and globally, Coun. Ray Watkins voiced his support.

"It's about everybody. It's about Black people, it's about First Nations – it's about everything. Even in these times, we can't cut back on everything," he said.

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