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Central Alberta leaders give provincial budget mostly good reviews

Infrastructure funding shortfall remains unaddressed in budget, say municipality associations
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and Finance Minister Nate Horner shake hands after delivering the 2024 budget in Edmonton, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (The Canadian Press/Jason Franson)

Central Alberta business and municipal leaders credited the province for bringing in a budget with no surprises and a commitment to balanced spending but remains concerned about infrastructure underfunding.

“It’s kind of a steady as she goes budget and city officials are, I guess, relieved that it provides stability and predictability for our city budgeting process, said acting Red Deer mayor Vesna Higham on Friday.

“It’s a good news budget for our city and region from many perspectives.”

Money was earmarked specifically for Red Deer Polytechnic and Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre expansion. As well, new money was injected into a number of other programs the city may be able to tap into, such as the Local Growth and Sustainability Grant ($60 million over three years), the Homelessness Action Plan ($29 million), Homelessness Task Force ($24.5 million) and a grant program for recreational centres ($30 million).

The city was also pleased to see $717 million more in capital grants to give families more access to affordable housing and a $1.55 billion investment in addiction and mental health support.

“That is one of the biggest priorities for Albertans, certainly, is the addiction crisis and the mental health crisis that goes along with it.”

In presenting the budget on Thursday, Finance Minister Nate Horner called it balanced and responsible. Higham agrees.

While some may argue the $2 billion the province intends to deposit into the Heritage Trust Fund boosting it to $25 billion, would be better spent addressing some of the province’s most pressing problems, Higham believes it is wise to save and smooth out the peaks and troughs of boom-bust cycles.

Meanwhile, Alberta Municipalities (AbMunis) said it was “extremely discouraged” that the province did not do more to tackle Alberta’s infrastructure budget.

The $722 million set aside for municipalities in 2024-25 “falls far short of what is needed to address current infrastructure needs,” says the organization that represents 260 municipalities.

By not boosting capital funding for municipalities while increasing education taxes by $230 million “the provincial government continues double-downloading the tax burden onto municipal governments and property owners.”

Higham said few municipalities would disagree with AbMunis’s stance.

“I don’t think there’s a municipality in the province that wouldn’t side with AbMunis on this one,” she said.

Failing to invest in infrastructure when it is needed can lead to bigger bills down the road. “It’s a very real issue for municipalities across the province,” she said, adding provincial investment in municipalities has fallen over the last two decades.

Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) president Paul McLauchlin shared similar concerns.

The province’s commitment to improving planning, mitigation, response and resilience to national disasters, including drought and wildfire was applauded at the same time the lack of funding for infrastructure was decried.

“The RMA is frustrated that the Government of Alberta continues to view core municipal infrastructure support as an obligation to avoid, rather than investment in the economic engine of the province, said McLauchlin, who is reeve of Ponoka County.

The Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce believes the province has found a good balance in the budget and demonstrated a forward-thinking approach and commitment to accountability.

“Sticking to the Fiscal Framework that the Alberta government put in place in 2023 is important to build trust with the Alberta business community in our view,” said chamber CEO Scott Robinson.

“The budget continues to ensure there is a competitive tax environment for business while paying down debt and ensuring we are saving for the future through investment in the Heritage Trust Fund.”

The chamber is also pleased to see $810 million set aside over the next three years for the hospital expansion and continuing financial commitments to twinning Highway 11 ($17 million in 2024-25), completing the Red Deer Justice Centre ($22.7 million in 2024-25) and Red Deer Regional Airport expansion ($20.3 million in 2024-25).

In addition to the $7 million that remains in the budget for a proposed integrated shelter in Red Deer the spending “demonstrates a well-rounded approach to address both the infrastuctural and social needs of our community,” says the chamber.

A $13-million investment over three years for applied research for businesses at Red Deer Polytechnic “not only fosters a conducive environment for business but also promotes collaborative learning.

“This initiative is poised to make a substantial impact on our community, supporting the economic development of the city.”

Olds College of Agriculture and Technology also got $63 million to renovate and expand the W.J. Elliott Building, which was bill as a significant step towards enhancing student spaces and supporting the growing demand for skilled trades education in Alberta.