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EDITORIAL: City owes public strong communication around budget planning

With council's final meeting before the summer break held in private, residents have been left in the dark.

Though council takes an annual break each summer, this year’s stretch of downtime feels particularly foreboding — the August return will see tough financial decisions and their according impacts on ratepayers come to roost.   

In considering this year’s budget, the city will have to make decisions to navigate inflation costs, the cumulative effect of shrinking infrastructure support from the provincial government, and lingering impacts of reduced user fees and transit fare due to COVID. 

Administration informed council this past June that maintaining current service levels will require a projected 7.2-per-cent tax increase in 2023, with no sign of relief on the horizon: council is eyeing projected increases of 6.2 per cent in 2024, and 3.0 per cent in 2025. 

At council’s direction, administration is preparing options for a 2023 tax increase ranging from three to five per cent. With every per cent decrease in tax impacting city operations by $1.2 million, hitting the lowest option will mean a $4.8-million cut from the city’s operating budget this year.  

Council’s recent July 12 in-camera meeting to discuss these upcoming tax increases points to the dire situation in which the city finds itself in. Even in March, St. Albert’s chief financial officer Diane McMordie told council during a public workshop that unnoticeable “nickle-and-dime” cuts to services were already accomplished during the 2022 budget. 

What’s coming is substantial; with no fat to trim, the city will need to cut down to the bone to avoid steep increases. 

Notably, St. Albertans are prepared for these substantial changes. Fifty-one per cent of respondents in the city’s 2021 community satisfaction survey said they would prefer a reduction in service levels to avoid a tax increase. 

Now the time is approaching for St. Albert city council to execute these changes. Yet while June’s tax-projection presentation fleshed out what the city is facing, since that time, St. Albert residents have been left in the dark. 

While the city’s recent Ernst & Young fiscal review update demonstrates progress in achieving long-term financial goals, big-ticket items such as exploring partnership structures for the Arden Theatre (which according to the report could save the city $1.27 million a year) are still in progress, and it is unclear when taxpayers will see the full benefits of this $1-million review. 

Further, while council has emphasized the role of creating new revenue generation opportunities, viable projects remain vague: for example, in 2021 and again in 2022, council voted to withdraw $300,000 from a city savings account to pursue an “infrastructure opportunity” yet to come to light. 

If council’s current pattern of in-camera meetings is indeed necessary — as council members claim —  these closed-door sessions must be supplemented with open public communication, and clear direction as to the actionable outcomes that result from private discussions.   

Though what lies ahead will not be easy, the city must include St. Albert residents in the process, as the impacts of their decisions will reverberate throughout the community for years to come. 

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