$28M needed to keep tax increase at 2.6 per cent, Edmonton report says

Edmonton city council will embark on intense budget deliberations starting Thursday, guided by a new report that outlines ways to recoup more than $28 million in lost revenue for 2020.

The report, released Friday, shows that's the amount needed to keep the property tax increase at the planned 2.6 per cent. 

Maintaining the same operating budget would see the tax increase go up to 4.3 per cent in 2020, the report from the financial and corporate services department shows. 

The city faces tough choices after the province cut the equivalent of $26 million in operating dollars expected to come through grants and traffic fine revenues.

The city faces another $2.5-million shortage from its own community and recreation facilities. 

After the provincial budget was released in October, Coun. Michael Walters asked administration to calculate what it would take to reach a zero per cent tax increase in 2020.

The report shows the city would have to find over $70 million in savings to get to zero — an additional $44.1 million above the $28.5 million needed to maintain the planned increase. 

"The next few years are going to be a hard look in the mirror in terms of what kind of city are we building? What are our priorities?" Walters told CBC News Friday. "How do we use existing dollars to fund new priorities as opposed to new dollars?"

Security, parking, census in question

The finance department has found about $16 million in potential savings in operating services and programs toward holding the tax increase at 2.6 per cent. 

These appear in a range of departments, including fire rescue services, finance, transit, parks and roads,  and parking.  

The city estimates it could save $1.1 million by adjusting the privately-contracted security guards at bus and LRT stations "to better align with hours of operation and areas of high need based on security incident data," and by removing security from three locations. 

Expanding EPark zones in Old Strathcona and recovering curbside parking revenue from Oilers Entertainment Group lost during Rogers Place events would save an estimated $200,000.

Reassigning City of Edmonton parking from private to city-owned facilities could help raise $750,000. 

If the city stopped holding its municipal census every two years and relied on the federal census, the city clerk's office could save $1.6 million. 

Other small cuts could be made, such as reducing the opening hours at recreation and sports centres to save $400,000 in 2020.

Natasha Riebe/CBC

Coun. Andrew Knack said last week that no matter how they approach it, decisions will be tough.

"To find $44.1 million in savings — that is a large one-year amount and I think in order to do that we're going to have to be willing to make decisions that will be unpopular," Knack said. 

A higher tax increase is the last thing councillors are likely to endorse.

Walters said he's hearing more and more from constituents calling for lower taxes. 

"I'm more convinced every day we shouldn't be taking more property taxes from citizens today who are struggling because of lack of employment or businesses that are struggling." 

Walters has asked administration to evaluate the number of employees within the city. 

"Do we have the right amount of people? And I don't want to cause any alarm, really, but I think it's a fair question to say that you know we seem to hire more people than many other cities our size and we have to look at that."

Walters said Edmonton has about 15 full-time employee positions per 1,000 people — higher than Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

The report posted Friday outlines general strategies to reach the zero per cent tax increase goal but doesn't recommend specific amounts. 

It includes analyzing services to save a potential $7.2 million. 

Options under that category include closing under-performing facilities, cutting back on turf maintenance, reducing tanker and ladder crew for Edmonton fire service, and halving the city's 311 service.

Administration has considered a variety of workforce strategies amounting to $10.8 million in the organization, such as consolidating services into one business area, removing vacant positions and reviewing how positions are classified.

"Enacting this approach would result in a reduction to the number of employees and could have further impacts to service delivery and impacts to overall employee engagement and culture."

The city is also facing $183.4 million less in its 2019-22 capital budget because of the province's cuts in infrastructure spending and the city charters established with the previous government. 

@natashariebe