Macdonald: I Don't Feel So Pollyanna Anymore

I've always loved the happy book "Pollyanna." It has even given rise to the "Pollyanna Principle" that suggests that people tend to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant things. I was having a Pollyanna moment the other day at Council as I started reading through the action plan "Mid-Cycle Adjustments: The City's Response to the Change in the Local Economy” booklet. The headlines caused flashbacks in my brain: "A well run city” "A prosperous city" "A city of inspiring neighbourhoods“ "A city that moves!” I was thinking, "Wow! Things are great, I'm optimistic! Times are wonderful!" Then reality hit, and I realized, "Wait a minute, this isn't 2013. It's 2016!" 

Yes, back in November 2013 when the last budget was passed, and the Action Plan 2015-2018 was approved, Calgary was booming. Annual population growth was reaching 40,000 and there was increased demand for city services. Remember… that was when the unemployment rate was just around 5 percent. That was the trend-- Upward! 

Unfortunately, things changed and the dramatic downturn in the economy has created adversity, a dire and very bleak forecast for Calgary this year and next. Business owners lose sleep worrying about their ability to pay employees and keep their doors open. Young people, single parents and immigrants have been especially hard hit, creating an increased demand within social agencies in Calgary. And although we should celebrate helping other people, this shouldn't be a badge of honour… people want to be self sufficient, productive and prosperous. That’s the reality of the situation. 

And aren’t our leaders supposed to be on top of this? Plan for the worst and have the means to deal with it? Hasn’t this always been the case? And sure enough, the oil and gas industry has undergone a tumultuous shift and the price of oil has softened. The added uncertainty of a new provincial government has heightened the drama. This is where we are today… approving of a mid-cycle adjustment and capital review in Calgary City Council. Should Council continue with its vision of Calgary regardless of the cost of the impact it has on its citizens? Nothing wrong with bettering ourselves and our community, but following this vision impacts real people. If we ignore the impact of the economy we will set back our goal of helping our citizens.

It seems that Council may be recognizing the impact of the economic downturn on the citizens of Calgary. It has proposed adjustments to provide aid and benefits to citizens in four key areas which include shaving 183M from the budget through tax relief, fee relief for a number of services, investments in selected initiatives targeted at areas of greatest need, and a capital infrastructure investment plan. But where does this comes from? I am not so enamoured with Council’s business savvy. 

One of Council's strategies is to “reduce” the “previously approved” tax rate increase of 4.7 percent to 1.5 percent with a rebate of 1.5 percent. Yay! Thank you for not taking more money from us, and rebating our own money to pay for the 1.5 percent INCREASE!  Wrap your head around that one!  I'm confused--is this a tax-increase or a rebate, or what? What about new year? I think Council needs to do better than this and explain their proposed cuts and adjustments. 

When the economy is bad and the forecast is gloomy, the private sector seems to be able to find ways to cut spending, minimize expenses and get down to skin and bones. Strings may still be attached, but in the end they are accountable to the citizens. Why can't our municipal government do the same? Every salary that can be looked at, should be looked at. Travel, overtime, conferences, professional development, public engagement sessions and long drawn out meetings should be analyzed and accounted for. Council must take a firm line to get the best deal possible on every item they purchase. Departments need to prioritize and chop spending.

So, Calgary, hang on because experts say it is going to get worse. The massive disconnect between City Hall, the business community and the taxpayers cannot continue, so let's use some "Common Sense" and realize that we are all in this together, and try to figure out how to get through it in the best way possible. l love Calgary, and believe that we need to question Council's decisions and demand its accountability, through real business solutions. Looking at the reality of Calgary's economy today, hey, I don’t feel so Pollyanna anymore.

Kathy Macdonald is the Executive Director of Common Sense Calgary www.commonsensecalgary.com