Like any other leader of a large, capital-intensive business, I spend a lot of time thinking about strategic planning, budgeting and financial stewardship in tough times. Watching Calgary city council’s budget deliberations recently has been an exercise in frustration.
At the risk of comparing apples to oranges, here are two examples of knee-jerk thinking that have played out recently in our council chambers, and a suggestion of a more strategic approach to making service delivery more efficient.
The apples: in March 2019, just shy of the provincial election, the City of Calgary announced Calgary had secured exclusive rights to host the X Games in Canada for a minimum three-year run from 2020 through 2022. The former provincial government had promised $13.5 million to be combined with corporate sponsorship to fund the popular extreme winter sports competition and festival. But shortly after the provincial budget announcement in October, the city cancelled the X Games because the provincial funding was no longer on the table – without investigating other possible investment sources or ways to make this event a reality.
This is a short-sighted decision involving a relatively small amount of money. The X Games would put dollars into our businesses and our people while creating something to give Calgarians hope. Not saying the X Games would magically transport us to a time flush with cash, only that there was an opportunity in front of us for some excitement. Hope isn’t a plan, to use the cliché, but you can leverage hope to build community.
A budget hole of $13.5 million over three years is insignificant in a $4-billion budget. Tourism Calgary suggested the games were set to bring over $75 million annually in an economic boost to a struggling city. Those are strong economics where tax dollars are concerned: $13.5 million invested for a $225 million return on investment for Calgarians and an estimated 540 jobs.
The oranges: in the spring of 2018, facing an office vacancy crisis, city council approved a $100-million Opportunity Investment Fund to be handed out by Calgary Economic Development to attract new or expanding companies to Calgary in emerging sectors. Surely, at a time of mass job losses and bankruptcies in Calgary’s hospitality sector and existing businesses, our focus should be on supporting the businesses that have invested in Calgary over decades, and on bird-in-the-hand opportunities like the X Games. Restructuring property tax systems is hard work, while announcing big investment funds is exciting. Today, we need more of the former and less of the latter at city hall.
Here’s where operating efficiency comes in. The city pays far more than it needs to for essential services like garbage collection. City council has finally commissioned enough studies (the latest one cost $200,000) to undertake a pilot project on privatized waste collection. According to Waste Management (which has some skin in the game), the savings to taxpayers could be 15 to 40 per cent.
The flashing neon points to operating efficiency as the solution, yet our city council insists on more studies, dragging its collective feet on politically difficult decisions.
Our citizens deserve greater due diligence and oversight on the city’s operating budget. This isn’t the first time I’ve said it; it certainly won’t be the last. The new year is as good a time as any to get strategic about balancing our books to give Calgarians better bang for their tax bucks.