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Calgary budget: The public has their say

Calgary city council heard roughly 55 public submissions representing all interests and all walks of life, as they began on what will likely be a week-long discussion on 2020 budget adjustments.

That covered the first two sessions in the One Calgary budget week.

Just prior to opening the meeting Monday, the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good staged a march to city hall where they rallied to protect the most vulnerable in the city, focusing on the potential massive increase to the city’s low income transit pass.

Beltline and Inglewood pools

The Inglewood Aquatic Centre. GOOGLE EARTH/MAPS

After getting a lay of the land from Mayor Naheed Nenshi, public submissions began, and in the first group of give, three talked about saving the Beltline and Inglewood pools.

Vincent Murukami, who runs a non-profit martial arts program out of the facilities said the impact of losing that program runs deep in the community. The program runs three times a week.

“One of the goals of our program is to give people from all walks of life, who may have limited income, equal opportunity to train in the martial arts,” he said.

“I believe a lack of funds should not be a reason to deny someone better access to health and wellness. The Beltline fitness centre allows us to provide training to those people.”

Nine of the speakers in the first two of three Monday public sessions brought up the two flatwater pools, which are slated for closure at the end of this year.

Many shared their own personal experiences on the effect of potential closures, offering family anecdotes and the impact in the community.

Low-income transit passes

Colleen Huston with Fair Calgary Community Voices.

Many came to the meeting to lobby for city council to fully fund the low-income transit pass. Current recommendations show potential changes that would see the pass go from five dollars and change up to $18.

Colleen Huston, with Fair Calgary Community Voices, said it’s about equity for everyone.

“It’s certainly a way for people to connect to their city, the city that they love,” she said.

She said it’s about encouraging many Calgarians to make transit their first choice.

Franco Savoia former executive director with Vibrant Communities Calgary, said Calgary’s led the way in these areas in the past. He urged council to not look at these items, like the low-income transit pass, as an expense.

“My first point today is we keep talking about property tax and all this kind of stuff as expenses,” he said.

“They are investments. Investments. We have made investments in the past few years and it’s paid off.”

Business tax shift

Esther Kelly of the 17th Ave BIA.

Several directors from the city’s business improvement areas (BIA) spoke at the Monday meeting, urging council to take the right step forward on the tax shift. All of them spoke of the need to preserve Calgary’s small business community by choosing the 52/48 (residential/non-residential) ratio.

Esther Kelly of the 17 Avenue BIA she wanted council to have a good sense of what’s happening in that particular area of retail and commercial in Calgary.

“Our Ave, over the past few years has faced incredible challenges,” she said.

“Not only through construction, the minimum wage increase, but these property tax increases that we’ve seen over the years have been crushing.

“We’re talking about people not only trying to keep their doors open, but roofs over their heads.”

Kelly said the city’s switch to a 52/48 ratio will help. When asked by Coun. Jyoti Gondek if that $15,000 in savings under that regime would be significant, she hesitated.

“Even that shift isn’t enough. I think there are situations and services that obviously our most vulnerable need and there’s a balance that needs to be maintained. The businesses just want something that’s fair,” Kelly said.

City spending

Several speakers did come forward to question the city’s spending priorities.

Peter McCaffrey from the libertarian think tank, the Alberta Institute, said they have been coming to council for years to talk about cuts to the city budget, while councillors have also brought it forward.

“And yet, here we are at budget time again, and administration didn’t even propose an option to cut spending. We have an option to keep spending flat, we have an option to increase it by 1.5 per cent, we have an option to increase it by three, and every single one of those options includes massive tax increases for residents,” he said.

“If you’re not even being presented an option to cut spending, how can we have a rational debate about it?”

Franco Terrazano, Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Franco Terrazano, Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said despite crippling economic and civic budget conditions, the city continues to overspend by hundreds of millions.

“This has followed years of spending hikes,” Terrazano said.

“Between 2008 and 2016, spending would have been billions of dollars less if spending merely increased at the rate of inflation plus population growth.”

He said events over the last year show Calgarians aren’t willing to fork over any more money. He cited the plebiscite on the Olympics and the election of the UCP as evidence citizens want a different approach. Cuts should be made in labour, including pensions, and also the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund – the $100 million given to Calgary Economic Development to help stimulate the economy, Terrazano said.

Terrazano also took aim at the city’s arena deal.

“At the best of times, rubber stamping hundreds of millions of dollars for the owners of the Flames is bad policy, but it’s especially bad policy in these challenging times,” he said.