Politicized spending at city hall
This past December City Council voted to allocate Calgary’s $30 million budgetary surplus to a new Community Economic Resiliency Fund.
The fund, according to Mayor Nenshi, was designed to put “money in people’s pockets…in a way that is meaningful.”
So why, just two months later, did Council decide to earmark almost a quarter of that money for an advertising campaign to promote the City?
At a recent Council Meeting – councillors unanimously approved giving $7 million of the $30 million surplus to Calgary Economic Development, which is a not-for-profit corporation that receives almost 70% of its revenue from the City of Calgary already.
Calgary Economic Development wants to hire three new staff and start an advertising campaign to “combat negative perception towards the City” and to “accelerate diversification opportunities.”
For this recent $7 million proposal 34, organizations submitted letters of support. However, almost a third of them were government organizations and a significant amount of the others were businesses that would benefit from an advertising campaign.
One has to ask – if the advertising campaign fails to create more than $7 million worth of value to Calgarians, who will be held accountable? A quick flip through the proposal shows it’s short on consequences if the plan fails and is vague about expected deliverables. In that respect the $7 million plan, is more like a Hail Mary pass at the end of a football game than it is a sure bet – like giving the money back to Calgarians.
During the presentation of the last City budget in November 2014 – Calgarians saw increases in virtually every type of tax and fee that the City is able to charge. Property taxes were initially proposed to increase at 4.7% annually for four years (later reduced to 3.5%), fees for water rates, waste and recycling, Calgary transit, and recreation centres saw similar increases.
During budget deliberations, Councillors Chabot and Chu lost virtually every motion they proposed to find savings – on capital projects, the parks department, the Calgary Public Library, etc. The resounding impression given by the rest of Council was that this budget was so lean no efficiencies could possibly be found without important front-line services being compromised. Yet, a year later, lo and behold the City cobbled together a $30 million surplus.
Predictably – deciding what to do with these savings has become a highly politicized exercise meant to give the impression that the City is doing absolutely everything in its power to help Calgarians during such challenging times. Instead of taking a hard look at budget time and cutting spending, Council actually prefers to have a large surplus at year end as it gives them extra money to spend on their pet projects.
While Calgary Economic Development’s intentions for this advertising campaign are admirable – Calgarians would be less cynical of the City if they could see some restraint by Council with the public purse and more meaningful action towards tax reductions.
Mayor Nenshi should be commended for wanting to put money back in Calgarians’ pockets in a meaningful way...but he should follow up on that promise in a meaningful way. Instead of a $7 million Hail Mary pass to Calgary Economic Development’s budget, Council should have taken the safe approach – handing the $7 million directly back to taxpayers.
John Whittaker is a policy analyst with the Manning Centre
This column was published in the Calgary Sun on March 2, 2016