Photo: iStock/Lisa Marie

What’s at stake this October: A Calgary election issues primer

Find out what city council did — and didn’t — do.

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The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!

What have you missed at Calgary city hall over the past four years? And what do you need to know for the upcoming municipal election?

Here’s a regularly-updated list of election issues to help you prepare before you cast your ballot. Voting day is October 18, 2021.

Keep these (and other!) issues in mind as you get to know the candidates running for the next city council.

If there are any other issues you’d like to see listed, drop us a note at hello@sprawlalberta.com.


GREEN LINE

What this council did

In June 2020, Calgary city council voted 14-1 to proceed with the Green Line, which is slated to go from 16 Avenue North to Shepard in the southeast—the largest infrastructure project in Calgary history.

The $5.5-billion project was first approved by the federal and provincial governments in 2015.

The project is split into two segments—Shepard to Eau Claire, and then Eau Claire to 16 Avenue N. It had originally been divided into three phases, with the first segment split in two, but the city revised it to simplify procurement, which had been paused since December 2020 due to the province reviewing the project.

Each of the three levels of government will contribute $1.5 billion, covering the cost for the first, far costlier segment.

Where we are now

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau came to town in July to announce the feds were making good on their commitment to the deal. Right before his press conference with Mayor Naheed Nenshi was set to begin, the province issued a news release saying the business case they had asked the city to create has been approved, affirming their end of the deal.

Construction of the first segment is scheduled to begin in the fall in the Beltline, and is scheduled to be completed by 2027.

What to watch for

The newly-elected council will have to figure out the funding for phase two of the Green Line and decide whether it will go north across the Bow River as planned, or farther south towards Seton as some have advocated.

While expanding north would attract more ridership, some have argued that going across the Bow River would be too costly.

There’s also the question of if and when the Green Line will be built north of 16 Avenue N. Neighbourhoods in north central Calgary have been clamouring for better transit for years but there is presently no funding for extending the LRT line that far north.

The ultimate vision for the Green Line is to have it extend from 160 Street N. in north central Calgary to Seton in the southeast.


NEW FLAMES ARENA

What this council did

Council voted 10-4 in July 2019 to approve a deal with Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (CSEC) to build a new $550-million event centre, with the city and CSEC splitting the cost equally, while the city pays $12.5 million to demolish the Saddledome.

Included in the deal was a clause that the city and CSEC would split extra costs up to $25 million. The arena will be owned by the city.

In mid-April, the deal was put on hold due to cost overruns, which were attributed to inflationary pressures and disagreements over the building’s design.

Where we are now

The deal was amended in July after the arena’s cost increased to $608.5 million. The city will now pay $287.5 million, while CSEC pays the remaining $321 million and any future cost overruns. Upon CSEC’s request, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation was removed as the project manager, with CSEC paying the additional costs of hiring its own manager.

The city also agreed to pay $10 million in additional costs, such as flood mitigation, in addition to splitting the as-yet-unknown costs of a mobility and event management plan with CSEC. In total, the city is at this point ponying up $312.9 for the project.

The arena will seat 18,300 people, about 1,000 less than the Saddledome. Construction, which was supposed to begin in August, is now slated to begin in early 2022, with the goal of having the arena open for the Flames’ 2024/25 season.

What to watch for

In November, council will hear the costs of the mobility and event management plan, and will be asked to approve the development permit for the event centre’s finalized design.


TAX SHIFT

What this council did

Calgary’s property tax revenue has been hit hard by vacancies and plummeting property values in the downtown core. In response, council voted 10-5 in 2019 to shift the tax burden away from commercial property owners and on to homeowners. As a result of the shift, homeowners now pay 52% of the city’s property taxes, with businesses footing the remaining 48%. This gave the average homeowner a 7.5% tax hike, and a combined 12% decrease for non-residential property owners, in 2020.

Council also voted to give non-residential property owners a minimum 10% tax cut in 2019, as part of its non-residential Phased Tax Program (PTP).

Right before the pandemic hit, council voted to request the province establish a task force to explore options for long-term property tax assessment reform.

Where we are now

In March, council voted to cap non-residential property tax increases at 10%, which council also did in 2020 under the PTP, costing $13 million from the city’s rainy day fund. Council also set aside $30 million this year in targeted aid to local businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. But there’s a general consensus this trajectory is unsustainable due to a “bow wave” effect, where limited-time tax cuts pile up, leading to greater increases once they expire to maintain service levels.

What to watch for

Almost one in three downtown office spaces are vacant, so it’s unlikely homeowners will see a tax cut anytime soon. Business owners continue to pay 3.4 times more in taxes than residential property owners. The Calgary Chamber of Commerce is calling for the next council to shift the burden further away from businesses, with a target of having businesses paying 2.8 times more than homeowners in 2022.

The next council will have to determine whether to cut services or allow taxes to increase in the coming years as the bow wave comes into effect.

We’ll also see whether the province looks into broader assessment reform, since the outgoing council’s request was put on the back burner due to COVID.


TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION

What this council did

When news came out about 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School, Mayor Naheed Nenshi called on the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District to rename their schools that are named after residential school architects—Langevin School and Bishop Grandin School, respectively.

The CBE obliged, reverting to the school’s original name of Riverside School, as did the CCSD, although the Catholic board is still in the process of determining a new name.

The council prior to this one voted in January 2017 to rename Langevin Bridge to Reconciliation Bridge.

Where we are now

In June, council heard an update on the aims of the White Goose Flying Report, which the previous council commissioned to determine what the city can do in response to the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

The report identified 18 actions the city could take to promote reconciliation, eight of which have been implemented.

Accomplished recommendations include flying the Treaty 7 flag outside City Hall, displaying the flags of Treaty 7 Nations within the council chambers and establishing an Indigenous relations office (IRO).

While the city offers Indigenous history and reconciliation training for employees, it isn’t mandatory.

What to watch for

When the Indigenous relations office was established in 2018, it was given a $1.1-million budget, but the next year it was cut to $482,000 as a result of broader budget cuts. Committee passed a motion in June to request a budget increase during upcoming budget deliberations in November.

Council also asked admin to provide an annual progress report on the city’s calls to action. There is currently no timeline in place to have the recommendations implemented in full.

Progressive PAC Look Forward Calgary points out that the Indigenous Relations Office, as well as the Calgary Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee, fall under the budget category of Community Strategies, which composes one-eighth of 1% of the city’s budget and has been cut 20% since 2018.


AFFORDABLE HOUSING

What this council did

Historically, Calgarians have benefited from reasonably affordable housing (relative to notoriously hot markets like Vancouver and Toronto) at the expense of unfettered outward growth. Calgary’s habit of sprawl produced the housing supply necessary to keep costs lower on the outskirts of the city, meaning that the upwardly mobile have flocked to the distant suburbs where land was relatively cheap.

A climate crisis—not to mention mounting evidence that our sprawl-dependent approach has effectively segregated Calgary by income—is rendering this strategy unacceptable, so council has had to seek more creative means to combat our burgeoning affordable housing crisis.

The current council has made some modest progress on this front. In 2018, council voted to reform their byzantine secondary suite application process. Secondary suite applications are now handled by the city's planning department rather than directly on the floor of city council (once a notorious time-waster at council meetings).

Where we are now

It’s widely understood that secondary suite reform alone will not be enough, and that non-market solutions are required to combat housing insecurity and inequality in the long term.

Advocacy groups like Renters Action Movement say that upgrades to aging or otherwise subpar Calgary Housing Company units would go a long way to protecting precariously housed Calgarians.

Some see the high vacancy rate of downtown’s towers as an opportunity to create affordable housing by converting commercial spaces into residential units (a notion that turns up in a few candidates’ platforms).

What to watch for

Calgary may soon see this idea put into practice, part of the city’s downtown revitalization strategy. The downtown development incentive program, approved by council in April, is meant to stabilize and increase property values while also addressing other social and cultural needs—affordable housing among them.


POLICE FUNDING

What this council did

After acrimonious debate, council voted in November 2020 to examine the possibility of reducing the police budget by $10 million, or 2.5%, redirecting those funds towards alternative community-led response methods in 2021, and again in 2022. This was the culmination of the city’s anti-racism hearings in July 2020, where numerous racialized Calgarians detailed their racist interactions with the Calgary Police Service.

Calgary police agreed to redirect $8 million of its budget to start a Community Safety Investment Framework (CSIF) but during budget deliberations the city opted to use $8 million from reserves to kickstart the fund, with the police given the option of matching those dollars.

Where we are now

The CPS did come through with $8 million of its own funds for the CSIF, with the city announcing dozens of recipients in June. Alpha House’s Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership (DOAP) team was the single largest recipient of city funds at $1.8 million, in addition to $1.06 million in funding from the police.

On the police side, 70% of funds went towards other organizations within the CPS, the largest recipient being the Police and Crisis Team (PACT), which partners police officers with addictions counsellors to assist those in distress, with $1.27 million.

What to watch for

The Calgary Police Commission, which decides how the CPS budget is divvied up, says it will provide up to $8 million for the CSIF in 2022, but there’s no guarantee beyond that, since the police budget occurs over the same four-year cycle as the city’s.

According to city admin, the CPS and police commission are committed to continuing funding for the CSIF for the 2023-26 budget term, but the degree to which they will fund it will be determined by available funding sources—so the long-term future of the CSIF is in the next council’s hands.


SPRAWL AND INNER-CITY DENSIFICATION

What this council did

Calgary’s sprawl problem, arguably the defining battle of Mayor Nenshi’s political career, has proven to be stubborn. In 2018, council approved 14 new greenfield communities on the outskirts of the city, which created a $56.9 million budget shortfall over three years and set back Calgary’s infrastructure capacity and environmental resilience.

Learning from this experience, council voted against approving 11 new communities in the outer reaches of the city in 2020, in spite of intense lobbying from the homebuilding industry, one of the biggest contributors to Calgary municipal campaigns.

In March of this year, council reviewed the Guidebook for Great Communities, a planning and best practices document for increasing density in Calgary’s inner city (i.e. established before 1950) communities.

The document met with considerable resistance (including an anonymous two-page ad in the Herald) in the leadup to the March council meeting. Opponents said the guidebook would homogenize Calgary’s character neighbourhoods and bring undesirable elements into homeowners’ backyards (although some experts argued the guidebook on its own wouldn’t actually do much of anything).

Where we are now

At the end of May, council voted to abandon the bylaw that was originally intended to make the Guidebook statutory. The Guidebook, renamed the Guide for Local Area Planning, was adopted as a best-practice guide and will be used to inform a number of forthcoming multi-area plans.

What to watch for

The North Hill Communities Local Area Plan (NHCLAP)—a pilot planning document intended to facilitate growth and change in multiple inner-city communities—is the first of several local area plans expected to roll out across Calgary, and it may set the tone for how the the Guide for Local Area Planning is received in practice.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Revitalization Plan, approved by council in April to the tune of a $200M initial investment, may be the next battleground in the council density wars, with several candidates voicing either support for or disapproval of it in their platforms


ARTS FUNDING

What this council did

A spate of broadly unpopular public art projects led council to suspend the city’s public art program and freeze funding for new works in 2017.

After a four year-long process of reviewing its public art policy and assessing options for a new one, the city announced in March of this year that Calgary Arts Development (CADA), a local non-profit that was already acting as the city’s arts funding arm, would run the city’s public arts program as a third party.

The transition is already underway, with CADA expected to assume full responsibility in 2024.

Where we are now

The current council has committed funds to a number of expansion or refurbishment projects at many of Calgary’s biggest cultural institutions, most in connection with the $200 million Greater Downtown Plan.

Arts Commons, a complex that’s home to many of Calgary’s biggest theatres and centrally located across from Olympic Plaza, is about to embark on a major transformation process. Council approved $80 million for the first phase of the transformation (expansion to a new location called Arts Commons North) in April.

In July, city council’s priorities and finance committee voted to redirect $15.5 million in provincial grant funding, originally slated for other projects, toward completing long-overdue infrastructure updates to the Glenbow Museum and an expansion project at Fort Calgary.

Some of that provincial grant money is also slated to go towards a new Calgary Opera community arts centre.

What to watch for

While several candidates have a vision for arts and culture in Calgary, some still namecheck years-old public art projects like Bowfort Towers and the "big blue ring" (a.k.a. Travelling Light) as the kind of projects they would axe in favour of better uses for tax dollars.

Should they be elected, some of the more fiscally conservative candidates may eye funds earmarked for cultural projects as relatively easy pickings come budget time.


CLIMATE CRISIS

What this council did

In June 2018, council unanimously approved the city’s Climate Resilience Strategy, which is aimed at mitigating climate change by reducing the city’s carbon footprint, and adapting to a changing climate through implementing risk management measures for city infrastructure and services.

The plan outlines five areas where the city can have an impact on climate crisis mitigation — buildings and energy systems, land use and transportation, consumption and waste, natural infrastructure, and leadership.

In terms of adaptation, the plan outlines five categories of climate impacts — on people, infrastructure, natural infrastructure, water management, and governance.

Where we are now

Despite its resilience strategy, the City of Calgary hasn’t joined cities like Edmonton and Vancouver in officially declaring that we are in a climate emergency.

Since November 2018, the city has a climate panel that has met three to four times a year to look at ways to implement the strategy.

The goal is an 80% reduction in the city’s 2005 emissions by 2050. With the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning that climate change is occurring more rapidly than originally thought—with the planet on pace to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040 rather than 2050—the city will have to adopt tougher targets to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.

What to watch for

City manager of climate change and environment Dick Ebersohn says an updated climate resilience plan will come before the next council by mid-2022, which will include a four-year and 10-year plan for getting to net-zero.

The Calgary Climate Hub, echoing the IPCC report, says net-zero by 2050 is the bare minimum. Its election platform calls for almost doubling the city’s tree canopy to 16%, increased accessibility for walking and cycling, increased access for charging electric vehicles, completion of the Green Line and requiring all new publicly-owned buildings to be net-zero, among other measures.


Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl. Miranda Martini is The Sprawl's associate editor.

Become a Sprawler—and we'll mail you our new Election Almanac!

Sign me up!

The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!