At the end of May, I wrote about the spring supplementary capital budget and reductions in services that we would see over the coming year because of the financial impact of COVID-19. We have seen an over $140 million shortfall in the budget due to the pandemic and as such, we had to make changes to almost every program and service in the city. This is unlike anything this city has seen before and unfortunately, it’s a fairly common story with municipalities across Canada at this time. Council made a decision early on that we could not pass on the shortfall to property taxes. With businesses and households struggling to pay their existing bills, adding an 8%+ property tax increase would not have been possible.
Therefore, a decision was made to make the necessary cuts to address the shortfall. There were 125 areas impacted that you can view here. If you click the ‘advanced search’ button and then click ‘apply,’ you will be able to see the full list. Many of these changes had to be made because we temporarily laid off thousands of City of Edmonton employees with many other temporary seasonal positions not being filled this year.
One of those changes was the maintenance of our greenspace. In a normal year, the goal is to cut approximately every 7 days. With the thousands of temporary layoffs of City of Edmonton staff and the inability to hire temporary summer staff, the park maintenance team is much smaller than in previous years. Therefore we are now cutting approximately every 21 days with only premier parks and sports fields being mowed to regular standards. This is far from ideal and understandably people are upset. Our parks don’t look great and that’s frustrating.
Knowing that there are concerns about the maintenance of those greenspaces, I supported a motion made by Jon Dziadyk Ward 3 City Councillor to explore options to scale up some service. I’ll explain what that means and ask for your feedback below.
The motion asks for different options to increase the frequency of grass cutting up to and including a full return to service. This information, along with the costs, will be presented in a council meeting in the near future.
It’s important to note that because we were able to offset the shortfall without increasing property taxes, any increase to service would have to be paid using three different options:
1) Increasing property taxes.
2) Using our emergency fund (otherwise known as our Financial Stabilization Reserve).
3) Decreasing or cutting another service.
I will not support increasing property taxes. People cannot afford that right now and therefore I don’t consider that an option.
While our emergency fund is a possible option, one thing we cannot forget is that the shortfall could increase based on a variety of factors. Therefore, we have to be very cautious when it comes to using that before understanding the potential larger financial shortfall in the coming months.
Decreasing or cutting another service is also worth exploring, but as you will see in that list, there are many areas that have already been impacted so we need to be mindful of that. If we were going to increase a service standard from that list of 125 services already impacted, would increased mowing of public spaces be our top priority? Or would it be scaling up our DATS service, reopening spray parks, opening up recreation centres earlier than planned, bringing back the Green Shack program this summer, etc.?
What makes this harder is that any funding we do use in options 2 or 3 will likely only allow for one of the many services listed to be returned and in some cases, it may only be a portion of one of those services. I’d like your feedback on the priorities. What would be your top 3? If we are going to use some funds, especially our emergency fund, to re-introduce some service(s), I want to make sure it is something we absolutely need right now versus something that we can do without for the rest of the year.
I know there have been community residents who have stepped up to fill the gap which does not surprise me as Edmontonians continually show up when help is needed. Thank you for all the ways in which you’re helping our community and especially those that have lost employment or their health.
Thanks for your time and I look forward to your feedback.