More power and money to cities in Alberta? I don’t believe you!

If you haven’t already done so you should check out Cities Matter, a website created by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. It features questions in ten categories related to municipalities that all five of the major provincial parties have answered. The Municipal Financing category asks what each party would do to provide long-range, sustainable, and predictable capital funding for large cities in Alberta. Here are some highlights from the responses:

Alberta Liberals:

Our view is that provincial funding for municipalities should be provided with little to no strings attached, and that local governments are best positioned to determine what their own priorities are and how money should be spent.

Alberta Party:

We are committed to ensuring municipalities have access to stable, adequate and predictable funding. The Alberta Party will shift from 3‐year budget cycles to 5‐year cycles to ensure more long‐term planning can happen. We will also explore alternative ways for cities to raise their own revenues, so that they are less dependent on provincial funding and are more able to accurately budget for their needs.

Alberta’s NDP:

An NDP government would support municipalities’ efforts to occupy the entire property tax and would be prepared to consider additional sources of revenue for municipalities which are appropriate to their responsibilities.

PC Alberta:

The PC Party also plans to help meet the fiscal needs of our cities with city charters and more local decision making through transfer of power. Municipalities are entitled to a greater say and accountability in their own governance and fiscal management.


Our Balanced Budget and Savings Pledge will lay the groundwork for growing surpluses in the short term; combined with rising income taxes this will ensure that municipal funding increases along with Alberta’s economy.  It also means that municipal leaders won’t need to curry favour with government ministers and align their ideas with the latest trendy notions among bureaucrats.  Wildrose trusts local communities to know what their short and long term priorities are, and with this formula will give them the autonomy to carry through in meeting them.

Sounds good right? More power and money to cities!

Thing is, I really don’t believe any of that.

Consider the proposed downtown arena. Our local leadership has determined (whether you agree or not) that a new arena is something the city needs, that it is something that would benefit Edmontonians. Yet none of the provincial parties seem to have acknowledged that decision. In fact, in many cases they have explicitly disagreed.

Here’s NDP Leader Brian Mason’s take:

“There are far bigger priorities for tax dollars in Edmonton than giving handouts to billionaire hockey owners. Instead, the New Democrats want to accelerate the construction of more light rail transit in Edmonton with more funding. We could use that $100 million to provide interest-free loans to 20,000 homeowners for energy efficient home renovations, or build 250 long-term care beds. New Democrats use public money for the public good.”

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith was even more blunt:

“We would not provide funding to a new arena in Edmonton.”

PC Leader Alison Redford hasn’t been quite so direct, but her government has thus far avoided the issue and has been more than happy to move ahead with the new Royal Alberta Museum (which nobody was talking about until the announcement dropped out of the sky). And she too does not appear to agree with the need:

“I think that we have enough funding in our system right now to allow for projects that matter to communities to be built.”

I have not seen either the Alberta Party or the Alberta Liberals directly address the arena (if you can point me to something that would be appreciated).

You might argue that these leaders are just responding to what Edmontonians are saying – they don’t want public money going to the arena. Walk down the street and ask people what they think however, and you get a much different response. I think a lot of people feel that other levels of government need to come to the table to support this project.

Either way, we seem to have conflicting statements here. On the one hand, these provincial leaders are happy to suggest that they would grant more control to municipalities to determine what they should build and how they should spend their money. On the other hand, they’re opposed to providing funding to a new arena in Edmonton. So which is it? Or perhaps a better question, exactly what strings will be attached to the greater autonomy granted to municipalities? The arena is just one example. The City Centre Airport is another (and we know that at least the Wildrose would reopen that can of worms) and of course there’s LRT.

I find it really hard to believe that any of these parties would truly give more control over finances and decision making to municipalities. And that’s a shame, because cities really do matter.

3 thoughts on “More power and money to cities in Alberta? I don’t believe you!

  1. I think what you’re seeing as a contradiction is what backs up the provincial party calls to give municipalities more power over money.

    The PC government has said that Edmonton could shift its already allocated municipal infrastructure to the arena, which of course puts all of the political backlash on city politicians who would then be stalling out projects like LRT. All of the parties (I think) are shying away from directly funding the arena, but not from city politicians from deciding what to do with current money.

    And, I suppose, it should follow that if the City of Edmonton was getting more money from the provincial government, or had some more taxing power, it would be up to the local politicians to decide how to spend it, not the provincial government.

    I still think the provincial government should be chipping in for highways that connect our cities, and public transportation though. That’s too large a cost for cities to bear without a whole host of new taxing powers or a really big chunk of provincial money.

    1. But it seems to me that Edmonton is saying that shifting existing funding is not enough. I guess you’re giving the parties the benefit of the doubt. I’m much less confident they would give cities more money because they know it could be spent on things like the arena. ________________________________

  2. I have been involved in advocacy at the municipal level for 8 years of my career.  Municipal Governments are by all accounts (and consitutionally) ‘children of the province’.  Repeated attempts to increase our revenue generation capacity to meet the infrastructure deficit and inequality in the tax system (every dollar you pay in tax, 6-8 cents goes to the municipal government) has been rebuked. The only danger to municipalities is a Wildrose government who seem stuck to an over simplified ‘population + inflation’ strategy.  Those factors do not equate to the need to deliver services in any meaningful way.  Stragely enough, regardless of the party’s committment – there is only one tax payer in Alberta and if municipalities have greater access to taxation, and therefore revenune generation, it decreases the provincial share of the pie.  

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