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Calgary budget: Day 1 – City protective services, civic partners make their case for funding

Calgary’s protective services are struggling under the crunch of call demand, councillors heard on day one of city budget deliberations.

The first day of Calgary’s budget discussion heard from 18 civic partners and the city’s protective services – 911, fire, police and bylaw.  The city’s is hoping to keep a lid on property taxes to the rate of population and inflation growth.

Over the weekend, the Calgary Police Commission released their budget ask for the 2023 to 2026 term. They’re after a bump of roughly seven per cent over the next four years. That will help fund 154 new positions, both frontline and civilian hires.  Labour costs account for the bulks of the CPS budget.

“What this budget ask allows us to do is the increase in capacity for public safety for frontline responses,” said Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld.

“That translates to things like faster response times, that translates things to things like more follow up to actually solve crimes, better customer service, and more proactive time, which is really important right now, given the trust gap that we’ve seen.”

Calgarians ranked public safety as their number two issue in the city, according to citizen surveys. The same surveys showed that 53 per cent of Calgarians believe more investment should be made in police.

The Calgary Fire Department is looking at a $34.2 million increase over the next four years. Chief Steve Dongworth said he recognized the city’s financial challenges. They’d asked for $80 million over the next four years.

“While the proposed funding will help us with some of the stressors we’re facing, we will still experience challenges even if the submission before you is approved,” Dongworth said.

When asked by the mayor how much they’d need to help bridge the gap, Dongworth said $9 million more. That would bring their total to $43 million.

Pressure on Calgary 911

Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Sue Henry spoke about the added pressure on Calgary’s 911 operators.  Henry said the 911 service receives a call every 31 seconds, 365 days a year.  That equates to more than 1 million calls annually.

“Over the last several years the volume complexity and duration of 911 calls is increasing,” Chief Henry said.

They’re also still dealing with the impact of the provincial decision to transfer EMS dispatch to Alberta Health Services, she said. It’s making the call dispatch process more complex because of the added communication steps required.

Henry also said that their 911 officers are monitoring 200 units at a time – less than other centres across the country.

“Our 911 operators are incredible. But this level of demand comes with a toll. Our short-term medical leaves have sharply increased as staff has hit their breaking point under the volume of calls,” Henry said.

“In short, we cannot keep up to the demand with our current resourcing in a business where seconds, not minutes makes a difference in an outcome.”

They’re asking for 77 new people in Calgary 911 over the next four years. They’re also planning upgrades to their technology and infrastructure to improve response times.

Civic partners feeling the pinch

Many of Calgary’s civic partners said they’re unable to execute current plans with resources included in the 2023 to 2026 budget. City councillors have noted previously that civic partners may be seeing fewer dollars as the city tries to keep the budget numbers intact.

Cindy Ady, CEO of Tourism Calgary said they’re looking for $2 million more dollars to help bring more conventions to the city. She said that investment could mean more than $70 million in economic activity for Calgary. They also need cash to continue an ongoing branding exercise.

“We’re really hopeful that we’ll be successful because it’s important to the downtown strategy and enlivening and making sure that we really utilize that new asset,” she said.

Sport Calgary president Catriona Le May Doan outlined a number of sporting initiatives they’ve undertaken over the past several years. Many of these programs have made city sporting activities more inclusive and diverse.  She also said that they’ve worked hard to maintain their programs cost free.

“We’re excited that we can possibly start some of these projects with your one-time funding support,” Le May Doan said.

“However, I will say that I’m very concerned with our ability to continue to project and even continue our current level of activities with our proposed 2024 base funding level.”

Other groups such as the Federation of Calgary Communities, the Calgary Zoo, Telus Spark and others shared similar stories of financial struggle coming out of the pandemic.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said she’s interested in hearing from councillors on which civic partners they’d like to support. It will be up to council to decide potential winners and losers.

“Many of them are organizations to whom we have offloaded responsibility over time, and they serve a very critical need whether it is taking care of communities or individuals,” the mayor said.

“They’re all important partners and they came to us with some very frank asks.”

Councillors will begin day two (Tuesday) with public submissions. There are 107 people signed up to speak.