Deliberations for the 2023-26 budget cycle have concluded. This exercise is one of the larger projects that The City undertakes to engage with Calgarians and builds a common path forward. The work that goes into preparing the budget is deep and the conversations it catalyzes are of high value. The task of this and previous Councils is to synthesize the feedback, face down all the competing priorities and deliberate on a path forward.
The adage “show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value” is what makes this conversation so important. The difficulty is while many Calgarians’ core values are aligned, the pathway to resourcing and therefore realizing those values is contested. Everyone has ideas on the solutions to our collective issues and ideas for our collective preferred future. There are merits and downsides to most options and tradeoffs attached to all.
My posture as an elected official has been to engage and serve as a nonpartisan Ward 12 and City advocate that respects the tensions we are navigating. I feel this is extremely important as I often witness important work locked in political and ideological conflict. Our budget deliberations are certainly not immune to this. In this budget wrap-up, I will attempt to do a few things. First, I want to paint a picture of the unique challenges facing Council and Calgarians and therefore our budget. Second, I will explain why Council is focused on resiliency through a social, economic, and climate lens and connect how I see our Ward 12 priorities fitting into that. Third, I will share the amendments that Council ended up voting for and my commentary on those. Lastly, I will share part of my vision for how we move forward together into a thriving future for our neighbourhoods and City at large.
Historically, Calgary has had a very robust inventory of offices and commercial space, highly concentrated in our downtown core. We were recognized as punching above our weight class, as a mid-sized city containing an outsized number of corporate offices. With that came high property values, leading to a very large tax base within downtown. This was an advantage to residential property owners as The City was able to collect a significant portion of its property taxes from non-residential taxpayers. We were sheltered for many years by this revenue, allowing our residential property taxes to remain relatively low as our corporate sector was able to carry a heavy load.
Fun fact: if Calgary's downtown suddenly had its assessment value restored to the 2015 high (a deficit of approximately $16 billion since the drop in oil prices that started in 2014) it would lower the non-residential property tax rate 21.5%.
The City and Council have been reeling from the impacts of this loss of valuation and the tax shift that was dispersed to other non-residential properties and now, increasingly to residential properties.
Oil & Gas prices have bounced back but downtown valuation will not be rebounding in equal measure. There are lots of reasons for that and it ultimately manifests in a lot of empty office space. This carries massive challenges and also some opportunities for our economic development. Thankfully, we are seeing signs that investment in Calgary's greater downtown plan is getting results and the initial recovery timeline of 10 years has been shortened.
I believe all of this is an extremely important backdrop for any reflection on budget decisions. Many Calgarians have been vocal about the rise in taxes without a noticeable corresponding increase in service levels over the past 10+ years. There is a reason for that. The City of Calgary is currently finding a new equilibrium and we need to keep making investments that will provide the foundation for a thriving future.
Why? Because our economic future is directly tied to the types of investments that we make. You don’t have to read widely to learn how Unlocking our Talent Potential (calgarychamber.com) is attached to being a forward-looking and inclusive city and investing in people, culture and infrastructure.
Projects like these major ongoing investments: Big four capital projects (calgary.ca) | Green Line LRT (calgary.ca)
Calgary continues to be very competitive as far as taxes go, despite the challenges already outlined above. My budget deliberations were also influenced by knowing that from 2019-2021 a full $177.5 million dollars in operating expenditures were cut following the 2018 recession. When I decided to run, I knew winning would mean facing an extremely tough four-year budget cycle. The loss of downtown valuation, non-residential tax shift, the end of the Phased Tax Program, the ongoing Pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflation all needed to be contended with. On the other side of the equation, we have a fire department on life support, a beleaguered transit system, parks in need of better maintenance, and many other well-deserving local partners and pressing priorities.
Given the challenges facing The City, and the modest envelope that Council gave to Administration, I believe the initial budget covered many of the bases. The budget respects the need to protect affordability in our city while also advancing important City Building projects and other vitally important work to realize Calgary’s best future. It is my hope that when you see the Ward and larger city priorities outline below that you will feel similarly.
Listen to Cllr. Spencer on the Eyeopener: Budget wrap up | Calgary Eyeopener with Angela Knight | Live Radio | CBC Listen
PROPERTY TAX IMPLICATIONS
Ultimately, the 2023 budget will see an increase of 4.4% in the face of rising costs due to widespread, worldwide inflation. Even though local inflation rates have been estimated as high as 6.5% in Alberta and The City continues to purchase goods and services that consistently rise in price, we were able to hold the line on expected net budget increases to below-expected inflation.
As the full residential portion of property taxes is applied to the pool of all residential properties in the city, total individual tax allocations will vary. Even though the average price for a home in Calgary has climbed over 13% since 2021, different categories of homes have seen varying rates of price growth which will be reflected in assessment. Some homeowners may see a slight decrease, while the average change will be approximately 5.2%. What this means, is that the average single-family home, which has an assessed value of $550,000 will see an increase of approximately $10 per month.
This video is a handy way to understand how assessment changes factor into tax rates: https://youtu.be/KblJAJTDtNc
The City's landing page for property tax calculation is Property tax: tax rate and bill calculation (calgary.ca).
WARD & CITY PRIORITIES
Ward 12 spoke up through online surveys, a citizen-led budget advisory panel and emails to the office. You shared that our collective priorities for The City should be primarily focused on getting value for dollars spent and pursuing strong fiscal responsibility. You also shared that caring for our growing neighbourhoods was important with investments in protecting safe routes (on and off-street), better transit service, and focusing on safety. Ward 12 loves its green spaces; Protecting them and future investments in recreation and parks for our collective well-being was highlighted.
Dive into the 2023-26 budget here: filestream.ashx (escribemeetings.com)
Transit is undergoing a major shift. What was once an enviable system with one of the first and best LRT networks in North America, is now struggling to be the service it strives to be while grappling with lower ridership and increasing safety concerns in stations and along the line. Council and Transit are also working hard on updating the City’s Route Ahead plan to enhance and shift Transit priorities and coverage. This budget addresses some incremental growth and invests in more efficient service. The annual budget entry for transit will grow from $265 million in 2022 to over $286 million in 2026. We will continue to fight for improved access for residents of Ward 12 over and above what we have already seen this past year. This budget also includes $4.9 billion of capital investments, including allocations after 2026. While this is primarily derived from the Green Line, there will also be investments in new vehicles and technology enhancements.
Public Safety and Bylaws (p163)
The Calgary Fire Department is tasked with serving an ever-expanding footprint while handling a larger off-load of medical calls from the Province. They are stretched thin and need to boost their force to maintain the protection we expect from them. The CFD is one of the most efficient in the country, as they have seen their budget shrink on a per-capita basis over the last number of years. They are hoping to expand their number of firefighters by 184 over the next four years and will need an operations budget increase to $275 million. Within that expansion, they are reinstating a Medical Response Unit in the downtown station, as well as staffing an additional four Fire Stations, including one in Ward 12 (South Shepard pg 150 2023-2026 Capital - recommended (escribemeetings.com)).
Bylaw Education and Enforcement is a relatively small group, managing a myriad of concerns throughout the city, and we’re lucky to have one of their satellite locations in Seton. Provincial regulations that take effect next year will provide our peace officers with greater abilities, which will influence how they are able to deliver services. Boosting their budget for this cycle allows them more opportunities to assist with public transit, problem properties and unhoused encampments. I was very comfortable supporting an additional 11 peace officers, to bring their total to 86. 9-1-1 is also a component of our public safety team and required an additional operations budget to account for growth and demand. Over the next four years, we will see an additional 77 operators and support staff complement the ranks, and be there for us when we may be at our most vulnerable.
Transit safety is top of mind for many, and we asked Admin when we would see the rest of the security and safety investment previously approved in the summer. It was good to hear that we saw the most recent current class graduate last week, the next class just getting underway, and the final class starts training in February. It will be a huge relief to see these additional resources working to keep our transit system safer.
The Police budget is one of the most contentious items we will deal with, and for good reason. It is the largest single budget line item in the city and goes to a group that we put so much trust in to protect us. By provincial law, we are limited as to what we have oversight on as well, so the system entrusts an independent body, the Calgary Police Commission, with oversight. With that in mind, the lens we use to analyze spending decisions is different for the police than for other departments. When surveying residents of Ward 12, they told us that feeling safer in their own homes and neighbourhood was important, and that includes funding a modern police force.
This budget also includes capital funding for the design and construction of the Seton Regional Park. (pgs 123 and 126 2023-2026 Capital - recommended (escribemeetings.com)). This will be an exciting piece of public realm space for all to enjoy, especially in the deep southeast.
Below is a link for a shortened reference list of the final recommendations. Below I will provide some reflection on the amendments that Council brought to shape each of those recommendations.
#1 (I, II, III, IV, V)
I. Leading up to deliberations and then through the public hearing Council heard resoundingly that the broader Calgary community was concerned that the budget was missing the mark on important priorities, underfunding vital partners, and not creating the conditions for success for transit, affordable housing, local businesses, and our long-term resiliency goals (to name a few). We had also been hearing that Calgarians’ ability to absorb more on their monthly expenses was under considerable strain.
This amendment was a collaborative effort to advance the priorities of Calgary after considerable deliberation back and forth by your elected officials. I had the privilege of moving it but Mayor Gondek and her office spearheaded the organizing of feedback after consulting with Council and providing the opportunity to give feedback and shape it. It was a package of one-time operating funds that allowed us to take care of transit fees, nurture businesses, continue our local Mental Health & Addictions work, increase support for FCSS and vital community partners, and much more. It also directly advances the priorities that were outlined in Council’s Strategic Direction.
While the ideal would be to make commitments past the four-year budget this pathway further struck the balance of protecting affordability while advancing meaningful work important to a thriving future. The Province recently released its affordability measures to help struggling families keep pace with inflation, rising utility costs and being forced to make difficult financial choices. This one-time funding is a similar measure, on an equally significant local scale. For more permanent base funding for critical areas, there was another amendment later that day to initiate those conversations.
II. This package of capital funds allows Calgary to advance extremely important active transportation infrastructure projects such as the Active and Safe Routes to School, fund amenity upgrades for established neighbourhoods undergoing Local Area Planning, provided capital to advance the Foothills Fieldhouse, and advance affordable housing as we collectively stare down the housing crisis.
III. Our downtown, as I outlined above, is very important for Calgary's long-term prosperity and resilience. This is a no-brainer for me; not making these investments will actively hold back Calgary's progress.
IV. The Calgary Parking Authority was recently brought back into The City and there is a willingness to reinvest some of their reserves into infrastructure that will enhance active modes of mobility.
V. This amendment puts extra resources in the hands of the Snow and Ice Control group in The City to respond to trouble areas and strengthen the policy.
#2 This recommendation was originally direction to shift residential/non-residential tax shares and an amendment delayed that decision to Q1 2023 to hold the tax increase at 4.4%
#4 This recommendation from Administration is an authorization for Planning & Development to draw from reserves to fund work that will consolidate important policies like the Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and the Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP) into a single policy called The Calgary Plan. I am excited about this work as it will happen concurrently with the Landuse Bylaw refresh work. It provides an opportunity to tackle issues plaguing development and redevelopment and reframing/reinforcing important direction on how The City grows.
#7 This recommendation was added to initiate a conversation that opens up the budgeting process and allows Council to have an in-depth budget conversation outside of the deliberations that just took place. During the budget conversations a strong desire to test the underpinning processes for how the budget process currently operates became apparent. I believe this undertaking could end up being some of the most valuable work Council does in the years to come.
I feel incredibly honoured to have just participated in the four-year budget deliberations on behalf of Ward 12. The budget, while not perfect, provides a great foundation for amazing work to unfold in the days to come. Calgary is extremely well-positioned for a strong economic recovery after some tough years. The pressures of those tough days are unfortunately still impacting many people and I encourage you to check in with your neighbours this holiday season and build communities of care on each street of Ward 12.
As I look back on the campaign priorities, I am excited by the progress that I am witnessing on many of the items that were highlighted. Council spent the early days setting a strategic direction and I am confident that the best future of Ward 12 is inextricably linked to the future of our City. If you haven't yet I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with Resilient Calgary: Council’s Strategic Direction 2023-2026.
The plan to thrive has been layered in countless conversations, votes, and ongoing work. In most of these buckets, my office is supporting incredible work being undertaken by Administration and Council. A couple of the larger focuses for me in the year ahead will be Activate Calgarians and Neighbouring. I believe that there is a lot that The City could be doing to build better partnerships and relationships with Calgarians. An activated Calgarian has a sense of ownership in their neighbourhoods and on their streets. The people of Calgary are what make this place great, and I look forward to advancing important work like this: Notice of Motion - Exploring Asset Based Community Development, EC2022-1249.
After spending a great deal of time acclimating to the new role, I look forward to re-engaging in our Ward. This is what energizes me as your representative on Council. Meeting with and helping the people who live, work, and play in SE Calgary is what motivates me.
As a team, we can't wait to spend more time locally, in the neighbourhoods that make up Ward 12. We want to be at more events and support more community endeavours in 2023. We’re excited to help take Neighbour Day another step forward this year. (Mark your calendars for June 17, 2023!) I am so inspired by the connections that already exist on many streets in our neighbourhoods. It’s incredible what possibilities open up when you create and grow bonds with the people around you. There’s no replacement for the community and commonality that grows through a shared street or a shared fence, and this year we plan to help spark more of these opportunities.
We are also planning more occasions to open dialogue between residents and my office, and between residents and each other. We’re envisioning ways to bring city services to the Ward and help people understand more of what is available through the city. In addition, we will launch additional citizen panels to help guide the future of Ward 12. As always, please reach out to my office to continue the conversation, and I look forward to seeing more of you in 2023.
To connect with me or my team, I encourage you to reach out via email at [email protected] or call the office at 403-268-1698. I appreciate feedback and conversations about tackling our shared challenges and capitalizing on shared opportunities.
Councillor, Ward 12