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Keeping the Lights On

Brad Field

Alberta’s budget has long been a topic of conversation around kitchen and boardroom tables. As families talk about tightening their belts because there’s less to go around, the same conversation happens in executive circles. Ongoing layoffs are a perfect example. Our homes have to control spending to keep our lights and heat on. Businesses have to manage their budgets to keep people employed. Albertans have told governments to do it too, so we don’t leave insurmountable debt to future generations.

The provincial budget was delivered in October amidst varying critique from both the left and right. No matter your feelings on the premier, or the party in power, the UCP budget delivered on what they’ve long promised. After years of overspending, it was time to get the provincial fiscal house in order. The will of the people this past April showed that Albertans, and Calgarians more specifically, desire a return to balanced books.

Finding where to pinch, tighten, eliminate or cut is no small feat. The minister of finance and his cabinet colleagues hinted in the lead up to the budget that municipal funding would be rolled back. As expected, the big-city mayors have kicked up a fuss. As the dust settles on that fuss, what becomes clear is the municipal bottom line isn’t being managed.

Quite frankly, as households are doing more with less, it’s time the city does the same. Reining in spending is hard, but it takes leadership to make hard choices. Smart operational choices, not political choices, need to be a priority. Closing swimming pools was not a difficult choice; it was low-hanging fruit. It ended fruitlessly, and communities get to keep their pools for the time being.

After years of avoiding the reality, spending is out of control in Calgary. Instead of taking a hard look at nice-to-haves, our civic government has gone on the defence and suggested eliminating things that matter to Calgarians. This is a cynical, old-school political manoeuvre, and one Calgarians will surely see through. When citizens have been asked about spending priorities, the questions are premised on the assumption of continued increases. The city’s Action Plan report stated that most Calgarians wanted existing services held at or near current levels, necessitating a 5.3 per cent rise in spending, and providing political cover for continued overspending. That cover is clearly gone.

The provincial budget reminds us that municipal spending growth has surpassed population growth for a long time. After years of overspending, the province is navigating in the direction Albertans gave them a clear mandate to travel. As one example, the provincial government has signalled the intent to reduce public sector compensation. This may be a subject to broach in Calgary as well.

There’s no question the budget cuts will cause pain in Calgary. Sectors, including our emerging high-tech industry, will struggle with cuts to tax credit programs, and social and community programs took a hit. As individuals, we should try to support our local arts and culture organizations as they adapt to lower funding levels.

When times are great, we get to pretend we can have it all; when times are tough, we must assess want versus need. Calgarians get that; it’s part of what has made us so resilient. Let’s live within our means. Let’s do what Calgarians do, and get to work to make it work.