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Highs, lows and a controversy or two: Calgary’s mayor reflects on key moments in 2023

An ideal Calgary is one where everybody lives with dignity, the city’s mayor told CTV News Calgary during an end-of-year, sit-down interview.

They have the dignity that comes with being housed.

The dignity that comes with ready access to food.

And the dignity that comes with having a meaningful income and work that they enjoy, as well as access to things like public health care and education.

“To build an ideal city — one that’s equitable for all — requires a lot of co-operation between all three orders of government and partnerships with the private sector as well,” Jyoti Gondek said.

“So I think the one thing that we have to get right is ensuring that we drop the politics and the ideologies and start working together in the interests of the people that we serve.”

It’s been a big year for Gondek and those who sit around the council table at city hall with her, and during her year-end interview, she reflected on some of the highs and lows of 2023, as well as some of the controversies:

2024’S PROPERTY TAX INCREASE

Calgarians are going to see a residential property tax increase in 2024 of 7.8 per cent.

In response to property owners who say the city should be tightening its belt as much as they feel they are having to tighten their own these days, Gondek said the tax increase was a necessary thing.

She said the adjustment to what property owners pay is what is needed to ensure they “continue to be able to live with dignity and receive the services that they deserve.”

And it was clear, she said, “when you think about the things that we invested in.”

Housing.

Public safety.

Transit.

“Those were three solid investments that we made and those continue to be our priority into the new year,” she said.

“Unfortunately, what has happened over time, and this is not necessarily an accusation, but it’s highlighting a fact, the federal and provincial governments have offloaded what used to be their responsibility onto municipalities like ours.

“In our particular case, we’re short about $311 million every year and that’s money that we try to find in interest from investments or any kind of operating surplus that wasn’t spent.”

But Gondek noted that is one-time money.

“And we have been using this one-time money for at least the last 10 years and never building it into budget,” she said.

“When you don’t have that to draw on, that becomes problematic.”

CREATING MORE AFFORDABLE HOUSING

The biggest line item is new spending on affordable housing, with a strategy of $90 million in capital funding, $27 million in annual ongoing funding and $54.5 million in one-time funding for 2024.

Gondek said the city is now trying to move as quickly as possible.

The mayor also said the $228 million the federal government awarded the city through the housing accelerator fund “will take us a long way to accomplishing our goals.”

“We are looking at building over 6,000 units with that funding and we have a goal of getting to 35,000 units over the next few years,” she said.

“We are also looking at how we use city-owned land to build more housing as quickly as possible.

“We recently had an amazing announcement, where we’ve got property that’s near the Whitehorn LRT station and another site that’s near Fish Creek-Lacombe where we are going to construct housing for families that are either unhoused or dangerously close to it. We have sent a call out to our partners with an expression of interest.”

Gondek said that will wrap by Jan. 15 and “once that’s in place, we will quickly move towards building those homes for people.”

Turning empty office space into housing has proven successful — so successful, the city had to pause its program for a time because the money for it was used up.

Gondek said there are 13 projects approved and another four in the pipeline she has “no reason to believe that they won’t be approved.”

“That would bring us to our goal of removing 2.3 million square feet that was previously vacant as office space and turning it into homes for Calgarians — about 2,300 homes, she said.”

“We can see that the incentive program was very valuable.

“The other thing is that, without being asked, the incentive program allowed for many developers to create affordable housing units as well, so this was a program that worked and the proof is there, so with the housing accelerator fund money that we have and the housing strategy that we’ve approved, the team is looking at whether we can top that up.”

A MATTER OF PUBLIC SAFETY

Having various stakeholders working together is key in the quest to improve public safety in Calgary, Gondek said.

The mayor believes it’s one of the biggest things the city has learned about the issue over time.

“The integrated response that we have, with Calgary Police Service working actively with peace officers and transit peace officers as well as outreach teams and health-care providers, allows for a more co-ordinated response,” she said.

“When a call comes in, it may be an individual in crisis, which requires a different response, so you have to send the right team into that right situation.

“It also allows us to focus on community safety and well-being on the one front, at the same time that we’re addressing issues of crime, whether it’s organized crime or gun violence. It allows the right party to do the right thing.”

Gondek said the number of shootings and the increase in gang violence has been “absolutely devastating for all of us.”

“I rely very heavily on Calgary Police Service’s investigative units,” she said.

“The fact that they have a unit that’s looking at organized crime and the fact that Calgary Police Commission provides the oversight — that gives reassurance to citizens that something is being done.

“The system is working. We need to let the police do the investigations and understand how they’re going to bring down those criminal elements.”

Gondek said a pilot project this past fall that lasted 12 weeks and saw sheriffs working alongside police officers but ultimately did not help boost the perception of safety in the city “wasn’t a failure by any means, but it didn’t accomplish what it needed to.”

“I think that allowed us to go back and look at what do we really need in place to make sure that public spaces are safe and that transit is safe and that’s where I’ll say the addition of police officers and transit officers and security guards really allowed Calgary Police Service to hone in on where there was criminal activity versus where there were situations of social disorder or people in crisis,” she said.

SHIFTING SOME OF THE TAX BURDEN

It was time to shift some of the tax burden from businesses to homeowners, Gondek said, after putting off the decision for a few years.

“Back in 2019, I asked a question about what is the responsibility of the overall budget that is borne by residential homeowners versus non-residential or the business community and at that time, we found out that about 55 per cent of the responsibility for the budget was being assumed by businesses,” she said.

“They were only generating 20 per cent of the income stream, so that seemed to be quite an imbalance at that time.

“And at that time, we did make an adjustment and we changed that model to being 48 per cent responsibility for businesses and 52 for residential, but what we can see over time is that we are far behind other jurisdictions in this country and it’s making us uncompetitive.”

It was also forcing businesses to close, Gondek said.

“Every time that happens, someone is without a paycheque, someone is potentially without a home and there are families that are going to suffer, so we needed to work with our business community, especially our small business community, who’s feeling this the most,” she said.

“This was relief that they desperately needed.”

AN ARENA DEAL IN PLACE FOR CALGARY

The arena deal was finalized this year with a $1.22-billion arrangement.

The city is paying $537 million.

The province is putting up $330 million.

Calgary Sports and Entertainment’s portion is $356 million, but just $40 million upfront and then $17 million a year in the lease payments.

Gondek said this deal that the city is carrying the bulk of is not the same as the one bandied about in 2019.

“As we started to see costs of materials, cost of labour increasing, we had supply chain disruptions, all of those things were actually increasing the cost of that project to a degree where the deal couldn’t be done the way that it was imagined,” she said.

“The other thing that deal didn’t contain is an understanding of what the cost was for infrastructure improvements around that facility that were absolutely needed to deliver on its success. So we divorced the building from the area within which it had to operate.

“So when we went back to look at how we get this, right, we were very honest and upfront about how much this would cost.”

Gondek noted approximately $300 million worth of infrastructure improvements that were needed.

She noted the community rink idea that had been floated but not really embedded into the last deal is included in this one.

And she noted there is a bigger facility to accommodate the types of events that are desired.

“There are the improvements overall to the district and there’s the community rink, so this deal is different than the last one,” she said.

SKIPPING THE MENORAH LIGHTING

Asked if she has any regrets about the choice to not attend this year’s menorah lighting, Gondek said she is sad she was unable to be there.

She reiterated what she said at the time — that it was not an easy decision to make.

“The poster that was used for the event indicated that it was a support Israel type of event,” she said.

“Now, in speaking with the rabbi, and speaking with the community, there is a sense that supporting Israel means supporting your home and supporting the folks who are in so much pain right now and that makes perfect sense, but in the world of social media, it gets interpreted in a very different way.

“To have a poster that says support Israel along with my name on it became perceived in the public as me taking a position in a war, which was not the case.”

In response to the backlash she is still facing as a result of that choice, Gondek said it is part of her burden to bear as mayor and something she will continue to address.

“When you’re in a position like this and you have to be a mirror for all Calgarians, you have to understand your responsibility, and when there is a perception that you have taken a side when there should be no sides to take, you have to remove yourself from that situation,” she said.

“So that’s what I did.

“I have relationships that will need to be rebuilt within the community. At the same time, the decision to do this was to make sure that there was no perception that I was choosing any community over another.”

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