Our cities are subject to the vagaries of other governments

Post Date: Thursday, February 16, 2012
Naheed Nenshi - formalI write a monthly column in the Calgary Herald. Here is my February story:

Indulge with me in some crystal ball gazing. When the Flames next win the Stanley Cup (this spring, of course!), it will be great for the city. Visitors will pack our hotels, restaurants and bars will be full, and people will be buying hockey sweaters and souvenirs. However, the City of Calgary — the municipality — will not receive one penny from any of this activity while incurring significant cost.

Even well-mannered Calgary crowds need policing and security — and then there’s street cleaning, infrastructure repair and even porta-potties. Not to mention the cost of the victory rally.

This is just one example (hopefully not that far-fetched) of how cities in this country work. We have limited resources and decision-making power, our budgets are stretched to the limit (and we don’t or can’t run deficits), yet we are expected to provide the services that keep people alive, healthy, safe and happy every day.

I was thinking about this not only because the mayor of Vancouver made the terrible mistake of trash-talking me during the Flames/Canucks game on Saturday night, but also because of the recent provincial budget and the upcoming election.

While this provincial budget won’t have an enormous impact on the city’s operations, it is a bit ridiculous that the duly elected government of over a million people (a larger population than five provinces), having passed its own budget months ago, and well into its own fiscal year, was huddled around the radio waiting to see if the decisions of another level of government would force us to change our plans.

Remember last year, when a footnote to a footnote in the provincial budget announced a $15 surcharge to traffic tickets that would have blown a multimillion-dollar hole in our own budget?

This year, the Alberta government’s budget was significantly more benign. While nothing in the budget should hurt Calgary too much (although we have not yet reviewed all the footnotes to the footnotes), it also misses some opportunities to make a positive difference to our city.

Take policing, for example. While there is a very large increase to the Solicitor-General’s budget, none of it appears to be coming to the large cities for our policing needs — it’s going to RCMP officers for rural Alberta and provincial sheriffs. This is despite the well-documented need to keep up policing resources and maintain Calgary’s status as one of the safest cities anywhere.

Similarly, while poverty and income support are not de facto the responsibility of cities, we end up dealing with their impacts on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. Increases to support programs such as AISH are, therefore, truly welcome.

However, the province chose not to make a modest increase to the program they cost share with the city: Family and Community Support Services. A small increase here would have gone directly to the scores of non-profit organizations doing hard work every day with people at risk, and it’s a shame the province chose not to help them more, despite the city unilaterally increasing its funding to the initiative.

(I voted against both of these increases in the fall budget debates, not because I thought they were bad investments, but precisely because I thought that the city taking unilateral action would let the province off the hook. It’s not clear if that was their motivation, but here we are again with the city left holding the bag.)

Even more perplexing, the province seems to be stepping back from its commitment to fund affordable housing in favour of funding shelter beds. We are still awaiting details on this, but, if it’s true, it would be a terrible mistake. Just last week, we announced that the number of homeless people in Calgary is down for the first time in 20 years, because of our new commitment to housing people, and because the province came to the table in a really meaningful way with significant funding.

All of this underlies the key point: Why can’t Calgarians make decisions and set priorities for ourselves? Why should we be subject to the vagaries of other governments? After all, it’s Calgary taxpayers who give the province the money in the first place — several billion dollars more each year than we get back in all provincial benefits.

In the upcoming election, therefore, I encourage you to ask tough questions: How can our cities have the tools to build the community and provide the services we all need? I know I will be asking these questions, and I will share the answers I get with you.

- Mayor Naheed Nenshi