Mayors of many Western Canadian cities are seeing increasingly dire financial effects from the pandemic on their budgets, but they are working on different strategies as they try to cope.
New figures for Edmonton presented Wednesday estimated the losses at $168.2-million by mid-September, compared with $112-million that was expected a couple weeks ago, as councillors debated whether to go ahead with construction projects to create employment or put them on pause.
In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Wednesday the total estimate of revenue damage in the city for the next six months is $350-million to $400-million. The solution he is emphasizing is help from the federal government, acknowledging that the province is already in a “very difficult” situation.
“The federal government is able to borrow at zero interest. We’ve never before asked for the federal government to help out with operating budgets, but this is exceptional,” the mayor said.
In spite of the shortfalls, the province’s association for municipalities is not asking the province for any tax deferrals or direct cash grants, as cities in British Columbia have done.
Instead, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association has been compiling a list of construction projects that cities could undertake at the request of the province, which has indicated it could provide economic stimulus that way.
As well, the association has been lobbying the federal government for some very specific forms of help: reimbursement for COVID-19-related costs, a new credit line for cities, extending the emergency benefit for municipal workers and doubling or tripling the gas-tax money for cities.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has set off one of the larger firestorms among municipal leaders in the country by releasing the results of an online survey saying almost half of residents had lost jobs or work hours and a quarter wouldn’t be able to pay their full taxes. He said the province urgently needs to help Vancouver with a potential $189-million budget hole or face a “coming crisis.”
His comments about the options available to cities if that didn’t happen – selling land or going bankrupt, in extreme cases – prompted criticism, but Mr. Stewart reiterated his concerns Wednesday.
“I don’t make apologies for telling the truth. I won’t make apologies for fighting for my city,” he said.
Mr. Stewart insisted the province has said it won’t give any block grants for operating money. In the meantime, his council and staff are debating how to cut costs by eliminating non-essential services and possibly deferring construction projects.
But NDP Premier John Horgan said Wednesday that Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson is working hard to find solutions for cities.
“She has also been going mayor by mayor, region by region, hearing people’s concerns, hearing their needs. And we are developing proposals that Minister Robinson and [Finance] Minister [Carole] James will be talking about later in the week that will be helpful,” he said.
“I don't dismiss Mayor Stewart's concerns. But those concerns are echoed right across the province. And we are still trying to figure out where we go as a province, where our regions need support, what we can ask from the federal government.”
In contrast, Mayor Doug McCallum of suburban Surrey, B.C.’s fastest-growing municipality, said his city doesn’t need help with its operating budget.
Mr. McCallum has said that although projections show a potential loss of up to $42-million in revenue by the end of the year, he believes Surrey can weather the downturn using reserves and belt-tightening.
“I’m not a fan of asking other levels of government for anything with the operating budget, no matter what the circumstances,” he said.
Surrey council approved starting four city-improvement projects worth $14-million ahead of schedule, saying it would help create 140 jobs.
As well, the city has forged ahead with virtual public hearings to approve development – something Vancouver’s council is hesitating over – to keep private construction going.
“We’re encouraging all of our developers. Our planning department is full on,” Mr. McCallum said. “About 60 per cent of our workers [in Surrey] are in some form of construction. It’s important in these crises, we need to make sure we have a real big game plan to get people working.”
The help he wants is federal dollars to build even more of the SkyTrain line for his city than is currently funded.
“Our residents pay a lot of money [in federal taxes]. We need to see some of that come back. We’re going to work hard, create jobs, but give us the money to build SkyTrain.”
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria
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