The strange comedy of errors that has become Edmonton’s Downtown Arena project continued this week as City Council scrambled to fill a $100 million gap in a funding plan they approved months ago.
Despite repeated claims by Mayor Stephen Mandel that provincial government money would fill the $100 million gap, anyone who has paid any attention over the past year will know the province had no plans to provide funding for Edmonton’s Downtown Arena project. Premier Alison Redford, Finance Minister Doug Horner, and Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths have been consistent in their public comments on the topic: “no.”
In response to the lack of never-promised funding in last month’s provincial budget, the Mayor and seven Councillors voted to withdraw a $45 million loan to be paid back through future Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding that the city could receive over the next twenty-years. In response to the decision, Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons reminded her readers this week, “[t]he clear intent of the original council resolution was that no deal would go ahead without $100 million in new provincial money.”
In a display of common sense against what has become Mayor Mandel’s increasingly embarrassing obsession, five Councillors – Don Iveson, Ben Henderson, Linda Sloan, Kerry Diotte, and Tony Caterina – voted against the motion to dedicate future Municipal Sustainability Initiative funds to the proposed Arena.
Problematic for many reasons, this decision still leaves a $55 million gap in funding and Daryl Katz – the billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers – said he is not interested in renegotiating the financial arrangement agreed to months ago. Mayor Mandel claims this loan will convince the provincial to fill a smaller $55 million funding gap – something the province has said it has no interest in doing.
The Municipal Sustainability Initiative was created by Premier Ed Stelmach’s government in 2007 to provide funding to municipalities for public infrastructure projects. Municipalities have discretion over how this provincial money is spent and they have typically been used to fund public transit, libraries, community halls and utility infrastructure. Using these funds to build a new hockey arena to house a privately-owned business like the Edmonton Oilers would use funds that could be used for other much-needed community infrastructure projects.
A concern for City Councillors should be that, like all funding transfers from other levels of government, there is no assurance that the Municipal Sustainability Initiative will exist over the next twenty-years. Its continued existence is based on three factors the City of Edmonton has no control over: population growth, provincial revenue, and the continued desire of provincial politicians to continue the program.
Will the provincial government change its tune and provide $55 million in direct funding? Not very likely. Mayor Mandel’s warpath against post-secondary funding cuts will have left many already unsympathetic provincial politicians now even less-willing to contribute to the project.
Also problematic for the provincial government is the ongoing is the investigation by Alberta’s Chief Elections Officer into allegations that Mr. Katz violated the Elections Finances Act by donating more than $400,000 to the Progressive Conservative Party in the 2012 provincial election (the individual donation limit is $30,000).