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Calgary in 2019: 17 decisions to remember

With the new year comes a time to look back at decisions that were made, actions that were taken and for reflection on what impact, if any, they have today and into the future.

Rather than give you a rundown of top news stories (which some of these were), we decided to look at some of the key decisions made in Calgary in 2019 and what kind of impact we can expect in the weeks, months and years to come.

We’ve got big items and little items – and some in between. They’re in no specific order of magnitude or importance.

$60 million budget cut

The city’s first budget cut came in July of this year and because it was a blunt instrument snip done quickly, it appeared to have a bigger impact than the budget adjustments in November. The cut was made as part of a package of relief for Calgary small business owners overwhelmed with the tax issue created by plummeting downtown property values. Since it was made in July (mid-budget cycle), some councillors said it equated to cutting nearly double ($120 million) out of the city budget.  

This cut transit hours, Calgary Fire Department medical response units, park and boulevard mowing, and included a pro-rated reduction of the Calgary Public Library funding, a reduction in pavement rehabilitation and more.

This first budget cut is important for a couple reasons: First, because it exposed where the city may continue cutting in order to meet budget constraints (police, fire, transit). These are arguably the most front-facing services in the city. The other reason is this first cut appears to be the deepest. In some city business units it means that further cuts will likely have a direct and noticeable impact on service delivery.

Tax shift / City small business

City small business owners were hit with sizeable non-residential property tax increases in 2019 with the ongoing trouble related to the shift of tax burden to non-downtown businesses. It led to a $130.9 million plan to help, including the aforementioned $60 million in July budget cuts.

Calgary took further steps to alleviate the ongoing tax shift when it made budget adjustments in late 2019. Now, city businesses will shoulder 48 per cent of the tax burden instead of 51 per cent.

It remains to be seen if the city will continue its Phased Tax Program in 2020, which provided relief to city businesses to cushion the property tax spike in the three previous years.

Arena decision

The price tag on the new arena is about $550 million. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

The city plowed ahead with plans for a new Event Centre, putting in $290 in public money for the project. Attempts were made to have the city’s funding – and the agreement – scrapped in the wake of budget cuts, but it passed a council vote 11-4.

Up next is further public engagement on what the area will look like, with designs expected sometime in 2020.  

For us, how this project is steered to maximize the public (not private) benefit will be the biggest determiner of future success. The actual positive economic impact of new arenas in other cities has been dubious, at best, unless it delivers an area accessible to all the people of the city, not just those who can afford pricey NHL tickets.

Green Line changes

While pre-work on the Green Line has been ongoing for some time, the city’s most ambitious infrastructure project ever was in danger of being derailed in 2019, as costs mounted and the amount of line they anticipated constructing with $5 billion shrunk considerably.

What will happen with the technical design and alignment of this project? Will it meet the vision of being more than a utilitarian people mover?

This is arguably one of the biggest decisions once again in 2020. It will shape a massive transportation corridor for the next generation of Calgarians.

Budget adjustments

The decisions made in November’s budget adjustments weren’t as severe as expected, with many front-line services being spared. That’s thanks to a solution created by Couns. Jyoti Gondek and Diane Colley-Urquhart.

Though a 1.5 per cent residential property tax increase will be absorbed with one-time cash, the cuts made will stay and additional cuts will need to be made in this year’s budget adjustments to help make up for the $24 million used to cover the tax increase this year and whatever comes next.

City manager David Duckworth

New City Manager for the City of Calgary, David Duckworth. CITY OF CALGARY WEBSITE

The City of Calgary hired David Duckworth as the new city manager after Jeff Fielding announced his resignation early in the year. City solicitor Glenda Cole held the acting city manager role for a handful of months as Duckworth was selected.

He’ll have a challenging role, navigating the city through the tough economic situation, while still maintaining services and getting the “message” out to Calgarians about the value they’re receiving for tax dollars.

Introduction of more transportation options

E-bikes and e-scooters made their way into Calgary in 2019 to largely positive reviews – especially if uptake is a good indicator. Adjustments were made for the second year of the city’s pilot project, bringing speed restricted zones and fines for driving recklessly.

The continued success of this will have longer-term impacts on Calgary continuing improvements to multi-modal transportation infrastructure – as long as no one gets run over.

Inglewood / Beltline pools stay open

The Inglewood Aquatic Centre. GOOGLE EARTH/MAPS

Mayor Nenshi said during budget deliberations that he was profoundly disappointed with the work done by city administration to come up with a plan to keep the Beltline and Inglewood pools open. After hearing from many citizens impacted by the potential closure of the two aquatic facilities, councillors decided to fund their continued operation for the next two years.

Perhaps the fate of these two buildings is sealed regardless of this decision, but what it showed was: a.) a mobilized citizen response can have a substantial impact on decision making, and b.) the city (and perhaps society in general) needs to pay closer attention to the collateral effect – and net community benefit – of these decisions, rather than relying solely on dollars and cents.

Increase to city rec fees

Sticking with recreation, Calgary’s recreation fees are changing and increasing substantially. Instead of paying for an annual pass to attend the city’s rec facilities, users will now pay a monthly rate. In some cases, that annual rate is as much as 50 per cent higher than in 2019, and it’s hitting seniors the hardest.

From our vantage point, creating a financial barrier for seniors to participate and congregate in physical activity creates larger long-term problems in health and welfare as they age, and possibly worsening social isolation.

Hiring of Mark Neufeld – CPS chief

Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld speaks to reporters outside city council chambers. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Along with City Manager David Duckworth, new Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld comes in at a time when budgets are strained. Along with that, the CPS isn’t out of the woods with its internal issues around workplace harassment.

Chief Neufeld inherits a police force that has adeptly kept a lid on Calgary’s violent crime over the past number of years, but continues to struggle with the confluence of a poor economy and a still-growing city that’s led to an increase in petty crimes and social disorder.

Funding four infrastructure projects

The city bit off a big chunk in committing to four major infrastructure projects: BMO Expansion, Arts Commons Transformation, the multisport fieldhouse and the Event Centre project. It’s $1.5 billion in infrastructure projects, with one well underway (BMO), the Event Centre following shortly (construction done by 2024) and the other two less certain.

One may argue that the fieldhouse and Arts Commons project are, in fact, more pressing than the other two – but that horse has been let out of the barn.  

Whether we’ll see these two takes serious steps forward in 2020 remains to be seen.

Local area plans – North Hill plan

Nathan Hawryluk, director of planning for the Renfrew Community Association, provides some of his feedback at the City of Calgary’s public information session on the North Hill Local Growth Plan. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The city has moved ahead with more substantial regional-type development plans, grouping neighbourhoods together by geography and demography. This essentially overrides the area redevelopment plans for each individual neighbourhood to share in the overall vision for a ‘borough’.

More of these are on tap for 2020 and beyond and while there are advantages, some community critics argue that the larger plans don’t necessarily represent the nuances of individual neighbourhoods.

Election of UCP

Premier designate Jason Kenney greets the crowd after making a speech to the crowd in Calgary on Tuesday night after leading the United Conservative Party to a win in the 2019 Alberta election. JENNIFER FRIESEN PHOTO / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

This doesn’t need much more added from us, but the impact on Calgary municipally is substantial. Deferral of the Green Line cash, reduction in fine income for Calgary police and a cut to municipal funding all have a short- and long-term effect on Calgarians.

While the United Conservative Party promised job creation, economic improvement and a better balance sheet, progress on any of those three areas has yet to be seen or felt – especially in Calgary.

Meanwhile, the UCP has also chided the City of Calgary for a poor track record on managing its own financial house. However, one needn’t look much further than $30 million and two logo gaffes with the province’s in-house, oil and gas public relations team to pop out the whole glass houses / pot-meet-kettle memes.  

Car2go leaves Calgary

This abrupt decision shocked many Calgarians, especially those that rely on carshare for a sizeable portion of their transportation. The company has since ceased operations across North America.

It’s believed other carshare operators will make their way into Calgary in 2020, but no official announcements have been made.

ActiveCity plan

Dr. David Legg (left), Jason Ribeiro and Dr. David Finch – part of the group that started mapping out Calgary’s active economy. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

We included this one as it was a grassroots effort to start mapping out the city’s active economy. Everything from actual sports facilities to the sports agencies, sports stores, professional services – anything that can be tied to being active in Calgary.

The group behind it believes we’ve been sitting on this gold mine since before the 1988 Winter Olympics and while some effort has been made to coordinate certain areas of active living in the region (think Calgary, Canmore, Banff, Kananaskis, etc), more emphasis could be put towards making it Calgary’s calling card for a diversified economy.

Calgary’s Comeback

We purposefully put this at the end for several reasons. First, the phrase was coined this year.  It’s a part of the messaging around getting the city back on track as a national leader.

Second, many Calgarians would struggle to see much of a comeback this year; tax hikes, services cut, provincial services cut, job losses, etc.

If you got this far though, we leave you with this: At midnight on Jan. 1, we get to wipe the slate clean. Both philosophically or literally, Jan. 1 brings a new year, a new start and a new vigor to our city.

Some of the lessons from 2019 we take with us into 2020 so we’re better equipped to take on the challenges ahead. Other decisions we choose to forget, cutting away their anchor-like effect, preventing us from moving forward.

We all get the chance to take a deep breath, re-focus on what important and then start taking steps to getting things back on track.

Calgary’s comeback is actually in all of us. Think about how your choices, big or small, help our city move in the right direction.

Happy New Year!