Edmonton council disappointed with cuts to public sector, post-secondary in new Alberta budget

·4 min read
Edmonton will feel public sector and post-secondary jobs losses the most, councillors say of provincial budget.  (Natasha Riebe/CBC - image credit)
Edmonton will feel public sector and post-secondary jobs losses the most, councillors say of provincial budget. (Natasha Riebe/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton's mayor and city council are giving a thumbs down to the provincial government's budget, which cuts millions of dollars in infrastructure money to municipalities and post-secondary institutions.

At a meeting Thursday, Mary Persson, Edmonton's chief financial officer, gave council the initial lowdown on how the cuts may impact the city's plans and economy.

The provincial budget released last Thursday highlights projects that the government says will create thousands of jobs.

But post-secondary institutions are expected to lose the equivalent of 750 full-time positions in 2021 and 2022, although the breakdown by school isn't available yet, Persson said.

Mayor Don Iveson said cuts to colleges, universities and the public sector spell bad news for Edmonton.

"It may very well be a jobs budget for Alberta, but it ain't a jobs budget for Edmonton," Iveson said Thursday after a council meeting.

Coun. Ben Henderson said the forecast doesn't look good for the city.

"I am really worried about the cuts to post-secondary in this city, which is very much part of what makes our city tick."

The province plans to reduce the government workforce by 7.7 per cent over four years, with many of those positions in Alberta's capital city.

The public sector is expected to lose more than 300 jobs next year.

"I'm deeply puzzled by how this budget can be seen as a job creation budget," Henderson said during the meeting. "It does not look like that to me, sitting here in the city of Edmonton."

'It's actually just a declining staircase that continues in this budget' - Mayor Don Iveson

The province says the budget will support more than 50,000 direct and 40,000 indirect jobs through to 2024.

This includes new funding for 41 projects around the province totalling nearly $826 million over three years, the budget release says.

The province's Treasury Board and Finance branch said municipalities will receive about 25 per cent less in Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding over the next three years.

Charlotte Taillon, the Treasury Board and Finance's press secretary, said Edmonton will receive $235 million in total MSI funding in 2021-22.

"We recognize grant funding is an essential part of municipal capital plans and budgets," Taillon wrote in an email to CBC News. "We're asking municipalities to keep working with us as we transition to the Local Governance Fiscal Framework in 2024-25."

MSI cuts

Persson said that means the city faces a net loss of $30 million in 2022 in MSI funding, and $120 million in 2023-24 when the new fiscal framework replaces MSI.

The cuts may limit the city's ability to renew facilities and 325 km of arterial roads, she said.

"Difficult decisions will be ahead as we plan for the 2023 to 2026 capital budget cycle," Persson said.

Instead, the city will likely be limited to maintaining existing projects already on the books.

The city was eyeing green initiatives, affordable housing, infrastructure renewal including industrial and arterial roads, facilities and open spaces with that money, she noted.

"These potential opportunities are no longer realistic with the current budget cuts," Persson said.

Broken promises

It's not just the United Conservative government that council blames.

The province now collects more than $2 billion in education property tax, Iveson noted, a source of funding once promised to municipalities.

Several years ago, the province said it would give municipalities the equivalent of what it collects in education tax, in infrastructure funding, Iveson said.

"We never once got the full amount," he recalled.

Iveson said when times were tough, the funding was cut. Every time the economy came back, Iveson said promises were made about funding increases that never happened.

"It's actually just a declining staircase that continues in this budget of cuts to municipalities, and promises made and promises broken by successive governments."

Less funding makes it difficult for the city to plan for new initiatives, retain talent and invest in areas that keep companies growing, Iveson said.

City councillors directed administration on Thursday to take a historical deep dive at the years of what they call broken promises.

They passed a motion to get a summary of cuts to operating and capital funding, back to the beginning of MSI in 2007.

The finance branch is asked to report its findings during spring supplemental budget talks in April.