The Gazette followed up with mayoral candidates’ questionnaire responses on the city’s repair, maintenance, and replacement (RMR) funding shortfall, and their stance on taxation, to dig into the details of their plans, if elected.
Bob Russell had mentioned cutting spending would be a first step he would take to avoid a tax increase. One area Russell pinpointed was the money the city invests in Edmonton Global.
When asked what other areas of city spending he thought could be scaled back, Russell said he would decrease spending for “Indigenous support,” citing $100,000 the city had recently put toward reconciliation matters, including hiring a consultant to establish a framework for a guiding committee.
“I am sympathetic to Indigenous people, and I think we should do whatever we can with policy and with co-operation,” Russell said. “When it comes to spending money, I’m afraid we’re getting into an area we shouldn’t be in.”
Additionally, Russell said he would scale back on money spent on supports for St. Albert’s unhoused population.
“There’s not many people out here who are truly homeless,” Russell said. “Do we have a housing problem? Absolutely. We are not building affordable houses anymore … and that’s where I think our work has to be.”
Another method Russell said he would explore would be to reduce the cost of developing new areas with an emphasis on commercial and industrial development. He said he would reinstate a municipal planning commission (MPC) — a public body to help advise council on development permits and subdivisions — “to ensure transparency and keep city costs to a minimum.”
“We need an MPC that is public so people could say, 'Well, what’s this going to cost the existing taxpayer,'” Russell said. “I paid for all my infrastructure when I bought a house here in Grandin, and now I’m subsidizing God knows what all because we don’t get a real good overview of these development applications.”
David Letourneau had mentioned one cost-saving measure he would pursue would be leveraging the city’s internal expertise, rather than “relying on costly external consultants.”
When asked how he would achieve this, Letourneau said he would develop a culture of trust within the city.
“I do believe it starts with how governance approaches challenges and issues,” Letourneau said. “Listening to those folks who are in it every single day, as opposed to external consultants who are just there for a matter of hours or minutes.”
In terms of approaching the city’s RMR shortfall, Letourneau said the city should address the root of the problem by re-evaluating its assets.
“I’ve noticed our capital asset acquisitions have gone up quite significantly,” Letourneau said. “It seems to be out of proportion with the increase in our revenue over the same time period … that’s not going to be a sustainable strategy.”
He pinpointed the recent Nakî Transit Centre as one example of a large capital asset that gave him pause, but noted smaller acquisitions can also add up over time. He said assets should be balanced with the revenue the city has coming in. He said this could be accomplished by increasing revenue through examining St. Albert’s land-use practices, ultimately making it a more attractive community for businesses.
“If you look at any of our industrial areas, the development costs are about double the cost in any of our surrounding municipalities,” Letourneau said. “In these areas, we require certain things, such as boulevards, which cost a lot of extra money. When a developer is looking to develop some of those industrial areas, it’s basically double the cost, so they’re put off already.”
Letourneau said he would want to challenge these land-use requirements, giving the example of Campbell Business Park’s newer section.
“There’s still lots of room over there that hasn’t been scooped up,” Letourneau said. “The things [which] are required in our residential areas are nice to have, but may not necessarily be needed in areas where we could become more competitive.”
Cathy Heron said maintaining current infrastructure has to be a priority for the next council, and said finding long-term sources of revenue is one major avenue St. Albert should explore. She also cited the Ernst & Young operation review, noting the next term will be about implementing some of the efficiencies identified there.
“Procurement is a really important opportunity in the report,” Heron said, referring to the recommendation to transform the city’s procurement operating model.
Heron noted some recommendations would be straightforward for administration to follow, but others would be “political,” such as the recommendation to review the library’s grant funding, and to potentially contract out the Arden Theatre to a third party. As for what kinds of choices she would make if re-elected, Heron said if a non-profit wanted to step in and run the Arden Theatre she would “absolutely be open to that conversation.”
“The library’s a little bit different,” Heron said. “What needs to be done is to examine what comparables Ernst & Young were using alongside our current library operations … they were looking at operations across Canada, which might not be specific to St. Albert, so we need to do a more detailed analysis. We need to work with the library board and get their opinion, because they’ve already expressed some of the terms don’t apply.”
In addressing the RMR shortfall, Heron highlighted how the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grant municipalities receive for infrastructure has been reduced by 25 per cent. She said there will be a new grant available — called the Local Government Fiscal Framework (LGFF) grant — but she said this grant will be “much lower than MSI was.”
“I’m going to be fighting — hopefully with a position on the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association — to make sure cities who have a lot of the infrastructure burden … get a big chunk of that smaller LGFF,” Heron said.
Angela Wood said her first priority when addressing the city’s financials would be to get the city’s fiscal house in order, and hold the line on excessive spending, noting that the operational and fiscal review is “a starting point.”
“Generally speaking, we need to be looking internally at our processes,” Wood said. “We need to really do a deep dive into our financials, and the best way to do that is to get an internal auditor who can give us the expertise to make the best decisions.”
Wood argued that these efficiencies should be found before the city takes on “high-risk ventures,” such as the Badger Lands solar farm.
When asked whether she believes it’s appropriate for the city to explore preliminary aspects of these projects by pursuing a more detailed business case, Wood said she “would never say it’s not a good idea to be open to new possible business ventures.”
“It could potentially be an option, and a good one, providing the time is right,” Wood said. “We need to make sure it makes fiscal sense to move ahead with a project. We can’t have a venture that is far too risky potentially end up harming St. Albert residents and our financial sustainability years and years down the road.”
She added she believes projects should be explored incrementally, adding “proper due diligence” needs to be foregrounded, and consensus on council should be taken into account.
“If all things are pointing to a positive, and it’s something that council as a whole feels is reasonable — because another valuable tool is that every member of council should be able to add valuable perspective, expertise, education, and experiences to the table — then I would be behind it,” Wood said.