Getting Calgarians back to work
It is the elephant in the room and it’s not something that City Council can address on it’s own. There are steps they have to take, though. First, we need to support the local businesses that survived the pandemic. Some of this is basic but essential, like simplifying and speeding up permits, being flexible around changes, establishing predictable tax bills, and supporting efforts like accessible parking for customers. It means attracting tax-paying tenants to the empty downtown buildings, whether they be businesses, educational institutions, startups, or even residential conversions. Sean Chu voted against the Greater Downtown Plan – $200 million in funding to help combat the vacancy crisis and turn the area into a thriving part of the city. We’re still waiting for his plan.
That is the short to medium term. Long term we need to grow into whole new industries. The tens of thousands of oil and gas head office jobs aren’t likely to return like we wish they would so we need to nurture new options. We aren’t short of options: there is growth or potential in engineering, agriculture and food production, tourism, and technology industries – both hardware and software.
Council must ensure that the ground is fertile for the small and medium sized businesses that will become the next Shopify. We need to set the table so those businesses choose Calgary.
Some of this is as simple as fixing the poor coordination among the several City agencies and even more provincial ones that are all mandated to attract business. Some of it is about those quality of life metrics that will bring and retain talented people. Some of it is about targeting incentives for businesses starting out in one of our high-potential areas; finding ways to make their early years easier and less uncertain that don’t break the bank.
Calgary Economic Development, Platform Calgary and other organizations are aligned in what needs to be done and they have plans to get Calgarians to work. Council needs to buy into the vision they have drafted with the help of those they represent and support them in their work.
The City of Calgary doesn’t have the money to simply subsidize startups — the traditional go to option — but we have all the intelligence and creativity in this city we need to be smarter than that. We are in an enviable position with SAIT, Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. They are fantastic partners ready to be put to work by the City and our business community to move Calgary forward. Someone just needs to ask.
First of all the Green Line has been studied, re-studied, and finally approved. We have funding from other levels of government to support the plan. It is time to get started with building it.
The Green Line runs right through the heart of several Ward 4 communities and will be a vital mode of transportation for our neighbours to have their workplace and businesses they would like to frequent be more accessible. Why has Sean Chu not been a more vocal supporter like the councillors in the southeast? He regularly appears uninformed about the Green Line and is not something we can accept from our representative.
The jobs and support work for those jobs will be welcome today, and the neighbourhoods that gain new access with the Green Line will see many benefits in the future. In Highland Park, for example, the Green Line means investment in a deteriorating corridor. This isn’t just about getting people into downtown, it is about moving people around neighbourhoods and connecting businesses and communities along the line. Not everyone loves the idea, and that’s fine, but a decision has been made and it is time to move on.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t watch the price tag and any problems or cost overruns like a hawk. We need to be prepared to make adjustments.
Unparalleled Quality of Life
We all want Calgary to be a world class city. Our quality of life, and how reasonable our cost of living is relative to other major Canadian cities, is one of our major competitive advantages. For many years people have wanted to live here. There are challenges now that mean doing the same old things in the same old way isn’t going to keep working.
We need to make sure that people want to bring their families here and settle down forever. We want people to bring their businesses, their employees, their conventions, and their friends and family to visit. That means a lot more than a competitive tax regime – it means quality and affordable housing, services, arts, culture, recreation, green space, transit, and inclusive neighbourhoods.
I love this city, and keeping it a great place to live isn’t just a slogan, it is a vital part of our competitive advantage in the future.
Being smarter with our money
Most discussions about the city’s finances start in the wrong place. Cutting services or raising taxes aren’t where you start. During the budgetary process goals and cash flow are identified first, and only then can you address the services that need to be delivered to achieve those goals and within that budget. Council should adopt regular zero-based budgeting for all units. This will go a long way to forcing focus on our stated goals and increase our agility to respond to a changing landscape – two things they don’t have a great track record with.
The City has made some cuts and implemented several savings initiatives over the past few years, and to make further progress isn’t a simple matter of turning over the couch cushions. We need councillors who actually care about the details and can provide strategic direction and leadership on the impacts that savings and spending have on service levels. City administration prepares a lot of performance measures, but I don’t hear councillors like Sean Chu referencing these metrics in their rhetoric. Are we reaching our stated goals? If so, are there ways to save money? If not, what do we need to do differently?
That means clear and agreed-on measures for success that councillors are accountable for. It means trying something different when we fall short. This is not complicated but our current Council certainly has made it so due to outdated methods and being unclear about what Calgarians expect from our city.
Talking about budgeting leads to talking about taxes. We pay taxes as our share of the investment in our city, and we all expect good services at a reasonable cost. Council’s job is to serve as a board of directors – ensuring that the needs of our citizens, both current and future, are being met as efficiently as possible. Municipal tax revenues are a small share of people’s total tax burden, and unlike the Provincial and Federal governments we have to live within our means and save for the needs of the future.
Calgary is in a tough bind right now. Our council hasn’t kept up with the times on our finances. For example, we need to acknowledge that the downtown commercial space property taxes that played such an outsize role in our revenue stream for so long aren’t going to bounce back to what they once were. Our property tax base was developed when all businesses were bricks and mortar. As things evolve and more businesses move online, more people work at home, et cetera how do we ensure that everyone is paying their fair share and that property owners and business tenants aren’t bearing the brunt of this shift? There hasn’t been much in the way of embracing innovative ideas by our council but the time to do so is now.
All that being said, City administration has done an excellent job in the past few years of driving down their costs and enabling hundreds of millions to be cut from their budget. I myself was a casualty of this cost cutting effort in 2016 and yet I support it. I believe the City has all the money it needs to be effective right now and so I support the City chief financial officer’s belief that there can be a tax freeze this coming year.
Having spent a lot of time working with the City, one of our problems is that there is a lot of confusion, bloat and mission creep at City Hall. Most Calgarians who follow what the City is up to can provide their favourite list of examples when the they did something foolish or inefficient. One I hear about a lot is the Council predicting a 6 or 8% spending increase, and when it turns out to be only 3%, people like Sean Chu claim we’ve “saved” money. Just to be clear: no, we haven’t.
The City of Calgary has multiple strategies and plans, each of which is supposed to guide every decision the city makes, but they often don’t align to each other. This is like having multiple direct supervisors – it is going to be confusing and impossible to satisfy all. Effectively this means that almost anything can be defended as serving one or another “plan”.
Effective organizations aren’t run this way, and the City of Calgary shouldn’t be either. Our existing Councillors have barely even tried to update the way the city is managed, and it is time for new people to step in to tackle the challenge of simplifying the City’s goals, objectives and plans to make real progress toward better.
We are smarter together than any of us are alone. City Council need to stop their bickering – something Sean Chu is regularly at the centre of – and find ways to work together. Each councillor is only one vote and it takes eight to get anything done. Leaders don’t play on people’s fears or waste time dog-whistling. They spend their time listening and working with each other, their constituents and experts to solve real world problems. Council must build new systems to increase public input and enable Calgarians to participate in problem solving rather than simply leaving complaining loudly as the best option. People like you know your community better than anyone at the City and you should be empowered to take action.
A city we are proud of
Councillor and Mayor jobs are the board for what is effectively a large corporation. It is appropriate for them to behave like it. The trouble is that for a long time Calgary gets a lot of squabbling and getting lost in the weeds, and not a lot of strategic thinking or direction. There have been a lot of failures of judgement and behaviour, ranging from petty name calling to inappropriate expenses.
Calgarians pay Councillors to work, and to ensure that the city’s work is done and done well, not to posture and pamper themselves!
Whether or not the (frequently lax) policy technically allows something isn’t the question, it is whether Calgarians are getting leadership and value for money. And I think we should expect better. Councilors should set an example, not make excuses. In these challenging times Councilors need to earn Calgarians’ trust every day – all Calgarians, not just the ones they agree with.
Opportunity for Everyone
I am both a certified project manager and a facilitator. That means I spend my days listening to people: helping groups of people make decisions about their priorities or planning the actions to realize those priorities.
I want Calgary to be a place where everyone who grows up, chooses to settle here, start a family or a business here, or retire here feels welcome and wanted. This should be a place where people live their best life, and realize their dreams.
In concrete terms this means that Council needs to work with citizens and partners to combat systemic racism, homelessness, and poverty. We need to listen to newcomers, accessibility advocates and those who have traditionally been marginalized about how we can make Calgary a great place for everyone.
The City has all the tools it needs to allow you to have more of a voice in what happens in your city. It’s time Council starts mandating the use of them to keep you informed and to give you more opportunity to share your expertise in a meaningful way. After all, you know your community better than anyone else.
A Sustainable Future
General Motors, Volkswagen and others have already announced that they aren’t going to be making gasoline vehicles within a decade. We certainly don’t have the infrastructure here in Calgary to support an electric vehicle reality. What steps do we need to take to make sure we aren’t paying twice as much to catch up to the ball later?
We have already started many initiatives to increase the ‘green’ share of our electricity supply, the efficiency of the city’s buildings and vehicles, and our planning codes facilitate these types of improvements. What we don’t have, again, is a real unified planning and budgeting framework to enable us to balance the tradeoffs. It is time for Council to get to work to be ready for this future when it arrives.
Studies have proven that it is more economical as well as more effective at addressing other societal issues to ensure everyone has a roof over their head. We need to act on that understanding. Affordable housing is a keystone issue that makes our city more attractive and accessible to more people, it improves the mental health of everyone and reduces problematic addiction, which in the midst of an opioid crisis is, again, a benefit to all Calgarians. Council needs to do more to help put a roof over everyone’s head, including more affordable housing units and ensuring affordable property tax rates.
I am a daily Calgary Transit user so I know when we are talking about quality of life we need to look at transit as an integral part of the future. World class cities offer a wide variety of options for getting around, both for locals and for visitors.
One of the long-term goals we need to be planning for is to have a high-quality transit link from the airport to downtown. Great cities have cheap and easy links between their long-distance hubs, and here that means the airport, their downtown coress. Calgary doesn’t yet.
Our airport is the gateway to the Rockies for hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. We want those people spending some time and money in Calgary before heading to Banff and Jasper. The better the airport is connected to the city, the easier that is.