Edmonton council set to vote on tax rate, four-year budget

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Votes on the budgets passed Friday morning, passing 9-4 for capital and 8-5 for operating

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Property taxes will go up about five per cent in Edmonton four years in a row to pay for budgets passed at city hall on Friday.

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City council landed on the final tax rates by passing the 2023-2026 operating and capital budgets: 4.96 per cent in 2023 and in 2024, 4.95 per cent in 2025, and 4.39 per cent in 2026. The decision came after council spent more than a week debating a lengthy list of amendments to the draft versions prepared by city staff. In the end, more money was added than removed, raising the tax levy about one per cent higher than the suggested 3.9 per cent increase per year.

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Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, before supporting both budgets, said council wants to keep taxes affordable, but austerity is not their goal.

It’s always hard to raise taxes, he told reporters at the lunch break, but he said the city is pressured by inflation to keep the existing services and maintain infrastructure.

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“We worked really, really hard to ensure we are looking at everything we could reduce, at the same time continuing to invest in public services,” he said.

The extra spending means on-demand transit will not be cancelled, transit routes will run more frequently, upgrades in Chinatown, investment in Downtown, and building Lewis Farms Recreation Centre, he said, pointing to some examples.

For their tax dollars, Edmontonians get “quality public services like roads, snow removal, fire service, police service, they get access to public transit, recreational facilities, parks, libraries … You need to maintain existing services as well.”

Asked what he’s most happy about with the budget, the mayor was glad funding was added for affordable housing, taking action on climate change, public transit and other front-facing services. He was also glad to see his pitch for city staff to cut $60 million annually passed.

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As for if anything disappoints him, the mayor would not say.

The $7.9 billion capital budget, which passed 9-4, will pay to build city infrastructure like roads, the High Level Bridge repairs, LRT extensions, recreation centres, and neighbourhood and alley renewal.

Notable increases in this budget included funds for citywide bike lane network ($100 million), climate-friendly retrofits of city buildings ($53 million), demolishing Northlands Coliseum ($35 million), building affordable housing ($22 million), Chinatown upgrades ($10 million), land for LRT Metro line from Blatchford to Castledowns ($20 million), district energy network ($34 million), and preparations for rapid buses ($5.5 million). Spending $70 million less on repairs to the High Level Bridge, cancelling the 100 Street Pedestrian bridge (-$17.6 million) and cuts to Edmonton Valley Zoo (-$25 million) were also approved.

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The four-year operating budget passed 8-5: $3.29 billion (2023), $3.34 billion (2024), $3.48 billion (2025), and $3.6 billion (2026). Expenses will pay for road maintenance and public transit, police and fire, parks and other programs and services.

Operating dollars were added during debates for on-demand transit ($42.9 million), affordable housing and homelessness prevention ($74.8 million), affordable housing grants ($25.6 million). Notable cuts included asking city administration to find $60 million in cuts and enforcement for removing homeless encampments (-$11.5 million).

Councillors Tim Cartmell, Sarah Hamilton, Karen Principe and Jennifer Rice opposed both budgets. Coun. Andrew Knack voted in favour of the capital budget but opposed the operating budget.

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Regional transit decision impacts vote

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Deciding not to pay for the city’s $13-million annual share of regional transit funding — effectively killing the Edmonton Regional Transit Commission (EMRTC) — weighed heavily on some councillors’ decisions not to support the operating budget.

Coun. Tim Cartmell expressed his displeasure about this in his opening remarks before the vote. He contested the framing of the issue by some council members that there already is a regional bus service because a completely co-ordinated system doesn’t exist.

This decision, he said, will impact Edmonton’s relationship with the surrounding municipalities, he said.

“Make no mistake, trust has been lost … We have lost the trust of the collective communities around us,” Cartmell said.

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Speaking to reporters, Cartmell said he comes from a world “where you’re as good as your word.”

“When you make a commitment to the region, as an example, and for seven years you say, ‘Come on, you’ll save money! Come on, look at Vancouver!’ … and we say, ‘Sorry, we’re out’ — you don’t do that in the world I’m from,” he said.

“When we renege on a commitment, that’s just not right.”

Cartmell is also concerned the city running out of debt room through all the capital spending. This could create problems if, for instance, LRT extensions cost more than expected.

Coun. Sarah Hamilton said she doesn’t want to be a “naysayer,” so voting no was difficult. Denying funds for regional transit was a “huge” part of her decision to vote down the operating budget.

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On capital, she was unhappy to see this council revising decisions made previously — such as Lewis Farms Recreation Centre, which was ultimately approved, and the decision to cancel the second phase of Nature’s Wild Backyard expansion at the Edmonton Valley Zoo.

“If we are constantly looking back at decisions we have made, we are not looking forward,” she told reporters. “You need residents of the city to have confidence when we’ve made a decision.”

Coun. Andrew Knack also said he struggled with his choice to vote “no,” pointing to the decision on regional transit.

Knack also expressed frustration about business groups like the Urban Development Institute and the Chamber of Commerce that “sounded the alarm” about the tax rates before council had finished with amendments.

“Their comments were completely unfair and not reflective of the hard work this council did,” he said during the meeting.

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