St. Albertans should all be breathing a collective sigh of relief at the numbers in the city's latest fiscal update, which show we have nearly climbed out of the financial sinkhole opened up by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Municipalities across the country have taken a beating during this pandemic, and they will continue to struggle for some time as revenue losses continue to mount.
In April, St. Albert taxpayers learned that the "best-case" scenario was a $3.89-million deficit from the pandemic. By June it had grown to $7 million.
Numbers presented to council Aug. 17 put the revenue shortfall at $12.7 million, including $5.4 million from closed rec facilities, $2.7 million from transit, $900,000 from the culture department and $3.7 million from a variety of other program areas. Add to that the $1.7 million cost of the city's response to the pandemic, and the shortfall was $14.4 million.
"The actual impact of this event is $14.4 million dollars, which is astronomical. The fact that council was supportive of all the work administration was trying to do to save costs and take financial management seriously really paid off," noted Diane McMordie, director of finance. "I feel like I actually got to deliver a good news story this time."
Quick action throughout this pandemic by administration and a supportive council has nearly neutralized what could have been a serious financial crisis. Staff layoffs, changes to transit hours and a seven-per-cent budgetary rollback across all departments – among other measures – helped the city offset those costs by $13.9 million, leaving us a projected $498,000 in the red.
That's $13.9 million that residents and businesses no longer have to worry about out of their own pockets – welcome news indeed at a time when many people are hurting from the impacts of this pandemic. By comparison, the City of Edmonton is forecasting a deficit of $23.8 million by year's end and is banking on federal dollars to offset that shortfall.
Like most businesses, the city was hit hard by the pandemic and it had to react quickly and decisively. Administration met the challenge head-on. The work, however, is not over. The 2021 budget looms on the horizon, and with the future uncertain, both administration’s and council’s mettle will be again be tested.
As administration noted, city staff have now begun the process to understand what lingering impacts from the pandemic mean for operating expenses and revenue shortfalls in the coming months. Tax increases, increased user fees and lower service levels remain on the table.
St. Albert's response to this pandemic has been laudable. The situation, however, remains fluid. As long as the pandemic remains with us, we will all feel the pressure and be required to constantly adapt to changing circumstances. The city has shown it has the leadership to do just that.