“Is this the best way we can spend taxpayers’ money?” 

This is the question I’ve been asking myself for years, both as an Edmonton taxpayer and now, as a member of City Council with the responsibility of actually determining how to spend your money. I feel strongly the decision makers, both administration and council, do not take in account the time sacrificed by people contributing to make a better city.  

Working hard and paying taxes should get both the individual and their community ahead, but all too often it does not. With all the “great ideas” at City Hall, our communities and residents are getting further behind. This represents a real waste of opportunity, money, and most of all, time. It’s that waste of time that really gets to me. Time is precious—it is the one resource we have that we cannot make more of. It’s the most important non-renewable resource on our planet!

So, let’s ask the original question again, but in a different context:

“Is this the best way to spend valuable time contributed by others through their taxes?”

Regardless of age, for most of your life you will be exchanging your time for the things you need, the pleasures you seek or the contributions you want to make. Food and shelter, entertainment and recreation, caring for family or volunteering in the community—in each case there is an amount of your time that is exchanged or contributed to these ends. 

If time is money, then waste is theft. We work hard to earn money to create the opportunities to spend our time on other things. Raising a family, pursuing higher education, supporting local charities, running a business—these are just a few of the benefits that come from a wise use of our time. 

When City Council overspends, mismanages finances, or funds programs with uncertain or unclear benefits, it is more than just a waste of money. It is a waste of your precious time, the time you spent earning the money that you must remit as taxes. That is a tragedy that I am determined to halt. Politicians who do not grasp the morality of this kind of theft must reconsider their elected office and it is the responsibility of our electorate to help them reconsider.

How can this situation possibly be improved when we are told by our political leadership that everything is up to standard, that there is no waste? Every year, it seems, there is upward pressure on the tax rate and more and more demand for more and more money. 

City Financial Condition Review
Office of the City Auditor, City of Edmonton
November 5, 2020

Some of this is justified by population increases, valuable new programs and increased prices. But we are rapidly approaching the point where taxation levels are becoming punitive and are stifling our social and economic progress. Rather than seeing outcomes that encourage us and make our city better, we see more spending, more red tape and more programs and policies that add little or no value to our everyday lives. Edmontonians often ask me, “Mike, I have to live within my means in my household. When will Council do the same?” It’s a good question but it will require a change in attitude and a change in leadership to achieve.

Edmonton Police Campus Budget
Mike Nickel’s IPMO Policy Document
January 26, 2021

So how do we provide Value for Everyone? Well to start, we must mitigate problematic projects before they start. The Edmonton Police Campus fiasco is a good example of time theft. The project was originally pegged at $30.6 million but rose to over $119.7 million. To add insult to injury, before it was even opened, the brand new roof started leaking and cost the taxpayers an additional $8 million.

By allowing projects like these to balloon out of control, we take away value from every Edmontonian. In the interest of preventing these runaway projects in the future, I introduced a bold new policy as part of my mayoral platform called the “Independent Project Management Office” which you can read here.  

Each year at budget time, our governments—national, provincial and civic—seem unable to move from the two most obvious choices: cut spending or cut services. But because service reductions produce howls of protest, the default choice is more spending with the increased tax bite needed to cover it. And yet many of those taxpayers do not see improvements in their lives. There is no additional value for the additional taxes. Little wonder people are discontent.

Providing value for your taxes is a critical “public good” that a caring society should emphasize because ever-increasing taxation is both anti-poor and anti-senior. People such as seniors on fixed incomes, low-wage earners,and  single moms struggling with two jobs are hurt most by tax increases. Wasting any of that tax revenue is morally wrong. A government that claims to support the less fortunate must demonstrate it through value for taxes.  

One obvious way to increase the value Edmontonians get for the taxes we pay is to increase productivity. This can be achieved by taking a more “business-like” approach to getting things done. It’s an approach I will continue to insist on as Mayor. I know from my struggles to implement these kinds of practices on City Council that it will take some effort, but I am committed to this principle.

A few years ago, a Council committee was looking at ways to assist the homeless in Edmonton. I thought it would be a good idea to look in detail at the interactions these citizens have with the various city services and agencies they encounter on a regular basis. It’s called “process mapping” and it provides a closer, more detailed look that can reveal the frequency of these interactions, how much cost is involved, and how outcomes might be improved. One fellow committee member was vehemently opposed, insisting that looking into people with this kind of detail was dehumanizing, cruel and heartless. But I was certain that precise measurement was the only way to fully understand the costs and outcomes of such interactions. And it was the only way to really see if our taxes were being spent effectively and delivering the outcomes we wanted. 

Every time there is a call for service for a homeless person, from police, for example, there is a measurable cost. Each time there’s an ER visit, another measurable cost. With each appointment with a social worker or a specialist, another cost. Process mapping helps provide a clear understanding of what’s happening, how big a price tag is involved and reveals if we’re getting the outcomes and the social return on investment we expect. It took a few years, but I eventually managed to convince the rest of Council to proceed. Those measurements provided direct evidence how service could be improved and costs could be reduced. Allocating money to a program without fully measuring its effectiveness is irresponsible and reckless. And because taxpayers gave some of their precious time to earn the money they pay to City Hall, it’s morally objectionable too. 

There are a couple of lessons here. The most obvious is that the best outcomes follow a careful analysis of how things are done and how money is spent. But the most troubling is that it took several years for the Mayor and Council to understand and adopt this practice. The absence of a foundational, universal understanding of delivering value for taxes is at the core of what’s wrong with Council decision making. It’s a shortcoming that negatively affects the citizens and taxpayers of Edmonton and it can only be addressed through committed leadership on City Council. 

By spending our precious resources more responsibly, I am confident we can provide better value for every single person who calls Edmonton home.