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Calgary budget: Fire, climate top public submissions

Day one of Calgary’s budget deliberations began Monday, with the morning dedicated to hearing public submissions.

Questions of the Calgary firefighter’s association took up the bulk of the session to start the weeklong look at the city’s 2022 budget adjustment.

All told, Calgarians could see up to a four per cent property tax increase, if the prior budget adjustment, plus additions are all approved.  Late last week, $147 million in additions were added for further consideration.

Labour groups opened the public submissions, with CUPE 38’s D’Arcy Lanovaz and Alex Shevalier from the Calgary and District Labour Council.

“Special interest groups would have you believe that you can somehow maintain all of the current services, add new projects and new spending, all with the same or less revenue,” Lanovaz, the union rep for many city workers, said.

“This is just simply false.”

Shevalier said this is his 10th budget and this one’s been better compared with ones from recent years. Investments need to be made, he said, particularly in parks and transit.

“I’m here to argue today that city council needs to reinvest, frankly, in city services,” he said.

“We’ve had frozen budgets over a number of years, and we’ve had declining staff handled at the same time.”

Shevalier also encouraged city council to take every opportunity to secure grants from other orders of government to help.

Firefighters Association sounds alarm

Calgary Fire Department fire truck. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

According to Matt Osborne, spokesperson for the Calgary Firefighters Association, the fire department budget has been cut more than $35 million since 2015.

Osborne presented Monday, and also fielded several questions from councillors.

He highlighted once again that Calgary doesn’t meet the minimum standard for staffing fire apparatus. Osborne also said that Calgary is the lowest-staffed metropolitan fire department in Canada.

“Unfortunately, in the past year, things have not gotten better. And if anything, it’s continued to get worse,” he said.

“Frontline fire engines are still being regularly pulled from service and unavailable for emergency calls because there are not enough firefighters and fire halls.”

Osborne said the city’s grown considerably in the past few years, but their service budget hasn’t. Upon questions from Coun. Kourtney Penner, he said anecdotally their call volumes and response times have been negatively impacted with the transfer of EMS dispatch to provincial control.

Afterward, Osborne said the biggest investment needs to come in the front-line service.

“We need enough firefighters on fire trucks. We don’t even have enough fire investigators investigating the fires that happen,” he said.

He also said improving things won’t happen quickly.  

“The fire department wasn’t brought to a breaking point overnight. And we can’t fix it overnight,” Osborne said.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said that not having a mechanism to embed fire department funding growth as the city grows, is a problem.

“The work the fire department does is critical to the safety of Calgarians,” she said.  

“And we have to ensure we’re funding them properly.”

The Calgary Fire Department has asked for roughly $10 million, and would add 62 additional employees.  

Climate and growth

Noel Keough prepared a submission related to climate action and social justice. He said it’s unfortunate that yet another city budget has been presented that doesn’t align with city policy.

“I say to you that ‘wait till next year’ is completely dissonant with your own declaration of a climate emergency,” Keough said.

“In a climate emergency, the time to act is now. Not in 365 days.”

Keough suggested that the city doesn’t include the projected costs of not acting on many of these climate-related or social issues.

“They (costs) have been externalized and ignored, but they are real, and they will affect the bottom line of every Calgary household,” he said.

Calgary declared a climate emergency last week. The initial proposed budget adjustment didn’t have additional money for the city’s climate resilience strategy.

As part of additional requests to council, five programs have been suggested, totaling approximately $10 million.

Others talked about the way Calgary grows and the impact it’s had on the redevelopment in established areas.

Renfrew resident David Barrett said that growth on the city’s edge has left the inner city with aging infrastructure.

“As a community that is part of the new North Hill Communities Local Area Plan, a plan that identifies a route forward for our neighbourhood to receive any additional friends and neighbours in the coming decades, I would strongly urge council commit to funding the identified infrastructure investments that were included in the appendix of the plan,” he said.

Councillors also hear presentations related to accessibility and the city’s cycling network.

Council will hear more administration budget presentations this week, including from the Calgary police. They will debate the budget items mid-week and make a tax rate decision likely Thursday.