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Unanswered questions

Life is good in St. Albert. According to our mayor, we're doing great financially, our residents are well-educated and progressive, and our business tax rate is low.

Life is good in St. Albert. Mayor Cathy Heron said so last week in her second annual State of the City address to members of the St. Albert business community and politicians from neighbouring communities.

Heron said we're doing great financially, our residents are well-educated and progressive, and our business tax rate is low. She waxed poetic about the future of the city, extolling the virtues of our current situation and the opportunities that lie ahead.

The speech, predictably, was short on details. That's the nature of a speech designed to inspire and reassure residents rather than provide a sober critique of the problems the city is facing. Like last year, Heron painted an optimistic vision of where we stand – never mind that the city is facing provincial funding cuts of unknown proportions and continues to grapple with a capital plan it cannot afford.

And now, as the provincial government promises fiscal austerity, St. Albert is hanging its hopes on a municipal utility corporation. Council is looking outside the box, Heron said: "We can explore different ways to slice the pie, to shuffle money around, or we can look at expanding the pie," implying fresh new revenues would spare property owners from higher taxes far beyond the 1.5 per cent council has already approved for each of the next three years.

We’ve heard that note of optimism from the moment St. Albert chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble brought the idea forward two years ago. But we’ve yet to learn what that new bigger pie will cost to bake. Or, put another way, how much will St. Albert taxpayers be asked to ‘invest’ in a waste-to-energy facility, or any other utility permitted under the new municipal utility corporation, before that corporation begins to produce lower cost services to taxpayers and/or dividends to the city?

There are simply too many unanswered questions today. How large will the initial investment be and what amount of additional investment will be required before it becomes profitable? Where will it be located? Who will bear the costs of the pilot facility if the project does not prove out? The city has been studying the concept for two years but has yet to provide the public with its business case. It’s still looking for a joint venture partner for the waste-to-energy pilot project. The mayor says St. Albert is looking for other municipalities to partner with it, suggesting a realization that the project requires a larger scale to succeed. Taxpayers have a lot riding on this venture and deserve an open and transparent sharing of the city’s plans. Heron expressed similar concerns during her speech and provided assurances council would not proceed unless the project makes financial, environmental and social sense.

In the meantime, those attending the address heard the message about needing more revenue, but many left the event wondering why the mayor failed to mention any plans to reduce expenses. After all, the city’s 2020 expenses will need council’s attention long before any new revenues appear from a utility corporation.