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Danielle Smith says province ‘ready to assist’ with Edmonton’s fiscal challenges as city manager exits

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says her government is standing by to help Edmonton with its financial challenges — if the city asks — while political scientists and a city councillor say the province is in large part to blame for the state of affairs.

“We stand by ready to assist if they would like to ask us for assistance,” Smith said at a news conference Wednesday where she fielded questions from news reporters on several topics. 

In an operating budget update two weeks ago, Edmonton city administration showed a $48.3-million deficit for the end of 2023. 

Smith’s comments about Edmonton’s situation were also spurred by the announcement five days ago that Edmonton’s city manager, Andre Corbould, is resigning after less than four years on the job. 

Corbould is the sixth senior manager on the city’s executive leadership team to leave their position in the past year. 

“That’s a sign that has us concerned about stability,” Smith said.

City administration attributes the deficit to population growth, inflation, interest rates and sluggish growth in retail sales.

Some say the Alberta government is in large part to blame for Edmonton’s financial state. 

Paul Kellogg, a professor at Athabasca University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, said the problems stem from a long-term decline in funding.

“Every city requires significant support from the provinces,” Kellogg said in an interview Wednesday. “And if there’s a province that’s reluctant to support cities, which I think is the case with the UCP government, then there can be real problems internally in the cities.”

The province is responsible for health care and social services, including mental health, addictions and shelter spaces. 

Not enough is funnelled through to municipalities, despite the province’s plentiful resources, Kellogg said. 

“Those resources have been strangled by a long-term set of policies from the province, until that’s addressed, we’re going to have problems internally,” Kellogg said.

Funding clawbacks trickle down to municipalities

Ward papastew Coun. Michael Janz said if the province was serious about helping, it would reinstate funding to municipalities that has been scaled back over the past five years. 

“Municipalities are increasingly being asked to pay more to cover the holes and patch the holes from the provincial government cutbacks,” Janz said.

Edmonton’s operating budget is increasingly strained every year because of provincial downloading, he said, with city services taking the hit. 

“So the province is trying to balance their books on the back of Edmonton and on the back of other municipalities around the province,” said Janz.

The province gives municipalities grants in lieu to make up for not paying property tax on buildings it occupies, but has cut those in nearly half since 2019.

Janz said it amounts to the city having $60 million less to work with for services like snow clearing and waste removal. 

The province also cut photo radar revenues to municipalities and clawed back infrastructure funding. 

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the city continues to discuss the needs with the province. 

“We have a collaborative working relationship with Premier Smith and Cabinet and we will continue to advocate on behalf of Edmontonians for the stable and equitable funding we need,” Sohi said in an emailed statement Wednesday. 

Homelessness, labour dispute among biggest tensions

Kellogg said decisions from the upper echelons of Edmonton city hall have also contributed to the turmoil many employees and the public are experiencing.

Corbould was at the helm during the recent labour dispute between the city and Civic Service Union local 52, which teetered on the verge of a strike two weeks ago. 

“When they played hardball with the unions and when they attacked the homeless, they created a chaotic situation in the city,” Kellogg said. “They didn’t have to do that. They didn’t have to follow these policies.” 

The city embarked on a strict encampment removal policy last December, led by the police. 

Brendan Boyd, an assistant professor of political science at MacEwan University, said the city took an enforcement approach to homelessness and downtown safety that the province favours. 

In contrast, some city councillors and community groups prefer an approach that focuses on developing social services and programs.

“There’s tension there, a fundamental tension in, ‘How do you deal with this problem?'” Boyd said. 

“And it is, it’s the biggest problem that Edmonton is facing — the amount of homelessness, violence that’s going on in the downtown area.

“So there’s just two fundamental ways to address it.”

The city has experienced a number of public safety incidents beyond its control, most recently gunshots fired and Molotov cocktails thrown inside city hall.

Senior managers depart in one year

Corbould, who was making $350,267.94 a year, leaves April 3. 

The five other deputy city managers left the city in the past year. 

Adam Laughlin, a 23-year City of Edmonton employee, left his most recent post as deputy city manager of integrated infrastructure services, this February. 

Gord Cebryk, deputy city manager of city operations, left in June 2023 after 35 years with the city. 

Stephanie McCabe, deputy city manager of urban planning and economy, left last July after 20 years. 

Catrin Owen, deputy city manager of communications and engagement and Kim Armstrong,  deputy city manager of employee services, departed last April after five years with the city.

The salary range for deputy city managers is $249,047.37 to $311,309.21 annually, the city said.

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