Should St. Albert build a new recreation centre? How about policing building accommodations?
These are the vexing questions being asked at city hall, and before our esteemed elected officials proclaim 2020 as the year of Chicken Little, they would do well to remember these are first-world problems.
Pragmatism must be in the forefront as city council begins its grueling work on next year’s budget. Would it be nice to have a new recreation facility? Of course. How about $1.3 million to enhance Lacombe Lake Park? Absolutely. And $550,000 for more traffic calming? Why stop now? The real question is, do we need all of these things, or are they nice-to-haves (except the need for traffic calming, but that’s a topic for another day)?
Council is forced to do a lot of handwringing over next year’s spending because of the major blow the province delivered to municipalities in last week’s budget. The blow comes in the form of a nine per cent cut to municipalities’ main capital grant program (the municipal sustainability initiative, or MSI) over the next two years.
City administration has proposed a 2.4-per-cent property tax increase as a starting point in council’s budget discussions. Over the coming weeks, councillors will debate which projects to fund next year or whether to delay some projects. Those decisions will likely impact the final tax increase.
While those conversations will be vital to our financial position, the budget document itself includes some telling suggestions and clues about what's to come.
Primarily, administration is suggesting St. Albert more than double its debt this year in order to finance five capital projects, which include twinning a portion of Ray Gibbon Drive for $26.7 million, moving forward on a new fire station for $16.3 million and purchasing three firefighting vehicles for $4.8 million.
To put those numbers in perspective, St. Albert's estimated debt for 2020 is $42.7 million. That will increase to $90.5 million if council agrees to go this route, meaning higher debt servicing costs in the future (without this additional debt, our debt servicing is already above $6 million). That's money that will be sorely needed once MSI cuts kick in.
Mayor Cathy Heron has been quoted in the past, saying she wants to build something. Other councillors have been vocal about creating new revenue streams. There’s been, however, a noticeable lack of meaningful dialogue on the subject of belt-tightening. In the next two years, St. Albert will have less provincial money to work with. We are living in a time of austerity, and we’re being forced to live within our means. We trust our city council will do the same.