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Decisions ahead

The summer break is over for our local politicians, and St. Albert city councillors are gearing up for a high-profile season of decision-making.

We hope they’ve got their helmets on and maybe some extra padding while they’re at it, in case they take a beating at the hands of the province’s much-dreaded October budget. The province continues to hint at cuts that could apply across the board.

The city relies heavily on provincial funding in the form of the municipal sustainability initiative (MSI), estimated in April to be $15 million, or about half of St. Albert’s available capital funding. City staff, councillors and residents alike will need to keep a close eye on St. Albert’s finances in the coming months: with many big-ticket items on the docket this fall from twinning Ray Gibbon Drive to the prospect of a waste-to-energy plant, there will be little time to change tack if St. Albert finds its provincial funding slashed, since the proposed municipal budget is due to be presented around the same time as the provincial one.

Monday starts with a bang for councillors at their governance, priorities and finance committee meeting, where the star of the show is sure to be a bylaw that could reshape the city’s utility structure. The bylaw in question would give St. Albert the right to make utility services exclusively run by the municipality – the first step, for better or worse, on the long road toward a city-owned utility corporation. We dove deeper into these types of corporations in this edition, which you can find on page 16.

The bylaw will need to come back to a regular meeting of council for ultimate approval, but Monday’s discussion should give residents an idea of how their leaders are feeling. Hand-in-hand with that comes a business case for the municipal utility corporation itself, which is slated to appear before council in the next few months. At least one councillor, Coun. Sheena Hughes, has expressed reservations about the plan, telling council earlier this year she’ll be going through the business case with a fine-toothed comb. That level of scrutiny should come from all members of council in the wake of the news that Chestermere’s municipal utility corporation resulted in skyrocketing bills and $35 million of debt.

The utility corporation is linked as well to the city’s zero-waste efforts. St. Albert put out a tender in July for a pilot waste-to-energy plant with a closing date of Aug. 20.

These efforts are all framed by the city’s need to get away from spending grant money – an inherently unreliable form of funding – on capital without having to hike property taxes too much in the process.

These uncertain times will require a stringent amount of budgetary diligence from councillors to make sure the most important projects get priority. Hard decisions will have to be made to ensure the city’s needs are put before its wants. We hope councillors are up to the challenge ahead.