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Win Ralph Klein’s money

Mayor Mandel says province has shown new willingness to dispense money to Edmonton

For years, it seems, municipalities have expounded on the need for both the
federal and provincial government to reinvest in their cities.

In Alberta, where governmental bodies have historically obeyed the mantra of
cutting back expenses, cities were often left with the unenviable task of
going hat in hand to taxpayers in an attempt to make up funding shortfalls
created by fiscal conservatism at the top levels of government. But over the
last two years, this has begun to change.

Last year, Alberta municipalities were thrilled to see themselves getting
mentioned in both federal and provincial campaign promises; nevertheless, the
2004 provincial election still gave city officials in both Calgary and
Edmonton reason to groan. The Tories, as they always do, won a strong
majority, which never bodes well. But this time, the Klein government
suffered heavy losses in the two major Alberta cities—a loss reflected
in a cabinet staffed by a strong majority of rural politicians. Of the 25
Tories in cabinet, only two hail from Edmonton proper (education minister
Gene Zwozdesky and advanced education minister Dave Hancock) and just seven
more, including Ralph Klein, represent Calgary ridings; rural cabinet members
outnumber their urban partners by almost two to one.

But mayor Stephen Mandel says that, so far, the lopsided balance of power in
the new Tory regime has given Edmonton no reason to worry.

“So far, there has been response to the concerns of the larger
municipalities,” he says. “Really, the government has really
stepped up; there’s a lot of money on the table and most of it is going
to Edmonton and Calgary.”

Edmonton is slated to get per-capita infrastructure funding from the province
over the next five years, based on 2006 population numbers. The more heads
that are counted in Edmonton, the more money the city will get to deal with
some serious infrastructure shortfalls—and Mandel feels that once the
dough is counted, the deal could be worth more than $150 million a year to
the city.

Most of the money will go towards transportation projects; Edmonton has
already prioritized the expansion of 23 Avenue to combat the growing problem
of congestion on the south side. The second priority for the city is the
creation of a bus rapid transit line, followed by general work on improving
the arteries.

Mandel praises the province’s decision to give the city nearly $13
million to subsidize ambulance services when it abandoned its plan to take
over the funding and administration of ambulance services in Alberta.

While the plan had many of the smaller municipalities—who share
ambulance services with each other—howling, Mandel says the move made
little difference to Edmonton, as the city’s emergency services are all
self-contained. Basically, instead of taking over, the government passed the
money it would have spent to maintain the city’s ambulances back to
Edmonton.
As well, Mandel is pleased with the federal Liberals’ plans to make the
well-being of Canada’s major cities a priority. The decision to direct
fuel tax to cities will mean that money spent on gas-guzzling SUVs will come
back to help extend Edmonton’s LRT. And the decision to give cities a
GST rebate will mean a direct annual benefit of $13 million to the city, with
$8 million directly going to City Hall coffers.

So, if the relationship between City Hall, the Legislature dome and Ottawa is
better than it has been in years, why do so many taxpayers believe
they’re all still at odds? Sometimes, Mandel admits, perception is
stronger than reality. “I am not going to play politics; both levels of
government have done good things,” he says. “If
anything—and I have said this to the highest levels of both the
provincial and federal governments—they have done a lousy job getting
that message across to the public.”

Mandel says there’s been a major paradigm shift in both the province
and with the feds. Instead of simply downloading cost-cutting measures onto
cities’ shoulders, the province now feels that municipalities need a
helping hand. And now that capital needs have been addressed, Mandel says
negotiations must begin on how cities can be helped on the operating
side.
“We are fine on the capital side,” concludes the mayor.
“It’s the operating side that concerns us. We find that our
operating costs are going up, and it’s funded by a static tax base and
commercial tax base.” V

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