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‘Caretaker’ budget: Mayor Nenshi said Alberta budget missed opportunities

The Alberta budget provides post-pandemic cash for city projects this year, but there’s a dramatic drop in available cash moving forward.

The province delivered its 2021/2022 budget Thursday afternoon, framing it as a positive, COVID-19 supportive plan for Alberta.

“Budget 2021 ensures health-care funding to see all Albertans through the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, it lays the foundation for economic growth and job creation while carefully managing Albertans’ hard-earned tax dollars,” said Alberta finance minister Travis Toews.

While the province has set the stage for a post-pandemic rebound, the deficit spending will continue. For the fiscal year ending March 31, deficit spending will have reached $20.2 billion. The forecast for the coming fiscal year is $18.2 billion.

The province’s debt, on a path toward $98 billion in 2021, is projected to be $132 billion by 2024.

Alberta’s Official Opposition leader Rachel Notley said she believed the budget was filled with re-announcements of old UCP policy.

“It’s a little bit of a deer in the headlights budget. It’s like they didn’t know what to do,” Notley said.

Cash for cities boosted, then cut

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said expectations were high for this provincial budget. He said the province had a real opportunity to “set a bold path forward” for a post-pandemic Alberta.

“What we got was, what could charitably be described as a caretaker budget; something that doesn’t rock the boat, doesn’t really move backwards but also doesn’t move forwards and doesn’t seize real opportunity,” Mayor Nenshi said.

“To me that’s disappointing because opportunity was here before us.”

Mayor Nenshi said while grateful the province spent money on municipal stimulus during the pandemic, there are considerable cuts to capital grants in upcoming years.

In the budget, the Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding jumps to $1.226 billion in 2021-22, but then drops substantially to $515 million in both of the following two years. Mayor Nenshi said for Calgary that amounts to a roughly $160 million hit over three years.

“That’s $160 million of potholes not filled, new roads not built, renovations and new builds and things like libraries and parks and recreation centers, not able to be made,” he said.

He did credit the province with pushing forward on provincial infrastructure spends. Mayor Nenshi believes that will help stimulate the economy and create jobs.

There was one small cut the mayor said would have a big impact. The Community Facilities Enhancement Program took a $6 million snip.

It’s an essential grant, he said, to help with the lifecycle maintenance of community association assets (roof and building fixes, etc.).

Other Calgary budget notes

While Green Line money is confirmed, the roll out has been extended – as set out in previous budgets. Mayor Nenshi said this budget didn’t really change the state of things on the Green Line.

The mayor did say that the budget assumes the federal government will front load their contribution to the Green Line. He said it’s not often the feds do that, but they are in negotiations to do so.

The province has set aside $212.6 million for the Calgary Cancer Centre build. There’s also $2.3 million to continue work on the renovation to the McDougall Centre in downtown Calgary.

The budget includes $186 million in cash over the next three years for work on Deerfoot Trail and $53 million for the construction of a new Court of Appeal building.

Post-secondary funding

The University of Calgary expressed concern over cuts to their budget as well. Dr. Ed McCauley, President and Vice-Chancellor at UCalgary said they’re absorbing a $25 million reduction. They will see an increase of $8.5 million to maintenance funding.

“A third year of funding reductions will have implications for our campus community and programs,” he said.

“But in this environment, we will continue to prioritize an outstanding student experience, driving economic growth and recovery in Alberta, and finding ways to support and give back to our city and our province during these difficult times.”\

The Students Union was frustrated by the cuts. They’re concerned that as funding is cut, tuition is increased to make up the shortfall.

“If students were to receive a better, higher quality education by paying more that would be easier to swallow, but the university is being forced to cut staff in addition to raising tuition,” said Frank Finley, Students’ Union president.  

“Online learning also doesn’t provide the same campus experience. In short, thanks to these continued cuts students are paying a lot more and getting far less.”