Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu has lobbed a grenade at Alberta’s big cities just days ahead of the provincial budget with an op-ed in the Calgary Herald, accusing Calgary and Edmonton of “excessive” spending.
The minister said tax bills in Calgary and Edmonton have been climbing at a pace disproportionate to population growth — a claim disputed by mayors in both cities — according to figures Madu took from right-leaning, business advocacy group the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
“This massive and unsustainable growth in city spending has led to a never-ending reliance on property tax increases for Edmontonians and Calgarians,” Madu wrote, accusing city councils of placing an “undue burden” on their residents.
The minister’s comments were seized upon by Calgary city council members Tuesday as a sign that this week’s provincial budget could be particularly tough on Alberta’s big cities.
“I think that this is the most worrisome budget from the tone that’s coming from the top,” said Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart at city hall Tuesday. “It’s no coincidence that he puts this editorial out on Oct. 22, two days before the budget is coming.”
Mayor Naheed Nenshi told Postmedia Tuesday afternoon that the figures quoted by the minister were “wrong” — that they selected specific years and left out spending figures since the downturn that show municipal spending increases remained below population plus inflation.
“There were a number of factual errors in it and it’s interesting that he would choose to pick a fight with municipalities just before the budget, I think that’s a pretty strong signal,” said Nenshi. “Since the economic downturn, we have in fact increased our spending by less than growth and inflation and we found over $600 million in cuts and efficiencies. So why would you use numbers from way back when if you’re trying to encourage change today?”
CFIB figures claim municipal spending in Calgary increased by 58 per cent between 2006 and 2016, while population growth increased by just 25 per cent.
However, city data suggests that growth in total municipal expenditures in that same period was actually 48 per cent — largely consistent with population growth (25 per cent) and inflation pressures combined, amounting to 51.25 per cent.
Coun. Shane Keating said the CFIB research contained inaccurate information and called it “irresponsible” of the minister to “quote a third-party, special-interest group as fact” without talking to cities to see if it was accurate.
Not all members of council objected to the minister’s op-ed, however.
Coun. Sean Chu said he “welcomed” the criticism from the provincial government. “I think the minister is a new sheriff in town and Alberta voted the UCP in for this reason and we have to tighten our belts,” said Chu. “We have to cut wasteful spending and the stuff we do not need: the Peace Bridge, the arts, the Blue Circle (Travelling Light), the (new) central library — do we really need it? If we really want to serve the citizens of Calgary, we don’t need a big, fancy library like the Taj Mahal.”
Asked about his support of spending on other major projects, Chu said council’s decision to help fund the construction of a new arena isn’t wasteful spending since it could generate revenue for the city as more development occurs in East Victoria Park.
Coun. Joe Magliocca similarly hailed the minister’s comments, calling him a “smart guy.”
“He’s echoing that exactly from Jason Kenney’s administration and he’s echoing that we should live within our means and our budget should reflect that too,” he said.
Nenshi said he worries the UCP will break their campaign promise to maintain the capital transfers to cities that were pledged previously under the NDP — a plan that would have seen Calgary and Edmonton taking significant cuts over the next decade.
He also fired back at the minister, defending Calgary council’s record on fiscal management.
“I’m not sure it’s wise to pick a fight with a government that on every measure has been more fiscally responsible and has performed better than any provincial government that I’ve seen in the last 10 years.”