COVID is the wildcard in the battle between City Hall and 2021

City Hall by Paul Dechene

I was looking forward to Jan. 6, 2021. It was supposed to be my first day back at covering city hall stuff. What with all the changes after the 2020 election and committee meetings now being streamed live online, I haven’t been this enthused about live-tweeting Regina politics in a long time.

And Jan. 6 was Regina Planning Commission’s first meeting of the new year and they were discussing a report on temporary downtown surface parking lots. I’d been waiting for this report for months. But little did I know I was waking up to a day that would live in infamy.

Yeah, another one.

Infamy has to be getting close to full by now.

Way to take the wind out of my sails, The Collapse of Democracy.

Writing twitter threads about surface parking lots seemed a little tone deaf and pointless in the wake of literal Nazis trying to take over our American neighbours.

But that was last week. I’m sure we can have a solid ten days free from epoch-shaking calamity. Right? And that’s time enough to kick off the year with a listicle on council stuff to watch for in 2021.

To the Top 6 Cave!

Top 6: Council Stuff To Watch

1 THE LIMITS OF COVID Five new councilors. New mayor. Everybody flush with enthusiasm. Hearts unbroken. Spirits uncrushed. Full of plans and agendas and eager to fulfill those campaign promises.

But, oh damn…

Dreams, meet global pandemic.

Anything council does for the next 12 months — and for some time beyond — is going to be filtered through the lens of COVID. The city budget is expected in March and will likely be a cautious document considering how much uncertainty we’re facing. Don’t expect administration to be eager to take on a pile of new megaprojects.

One bit of good news is that the city’s finances don’t absolutely suck right now. In April, when the pandemic was young and fresh and nobody knew how higher levels of government were going to respond, the city prepared to get hammered financially. They deferred most of their capital projects, suspended the hiring of consultants and contractors, and postponed any non-essential hiring.

The work paid off.

By the fall, administration estimated COVID’s impact on the city’s finances was around $15.5 million while their cost cutting had achieved savings of about $18.2 million. That left us with a surprising $2.8 million surplus. Meanwhile, the province came through with the Municipal Economic Enhancement Program so that the city could get back to work on the capital projects it deferred in the spring; and the federal government ponied up $16.3 million: $3.5 million of which had to go towards transit while the remainder could be put towards whatever.

Overall, thanks to an injection of cash from the feds and province plus administration’s COVID response, the pandemic didn’t massacre the community chest. And that leaves city hall well positioned to invest in Regina’s recovery. [1]

2 MASTERS’ MASTER PLAN Right out of the gate, Mayor Sandra Masters has shown herself to have a very different approach to council. When she’s chairing, meetings move. She has made it clear she has no patience for surprise amendments, saying those are to be kept to the more free-wheeling discussions held at committee. And she has so far exchanged making speeches of her own in favour of occasional reminders to council to mind the time.

I am dubbing this zippier, Masters-led council the New Style Council and it will be interesting to see if this Allons-y! attitude also reflects on how she approaches the agenda she laid out during the election. [2]

Chief among her promises was to streamline operations through a review to find 15 per cent in savings in city departments in the first six months of her term. This always seemed… very optimistic. On an operating budget of $450 million, Masters’ would be aiming to find $70 million in efficiencies. But the city has already conducted Core Services Reviews, which are effectively what Masters is proposing. The review in 2015 only found $8.5 million in savings while one scheduled for 2017 (which has hardly been spoken about) was expected to find another $2.6 million. Finding eight times as much in savings as what was achieved in 2015 in a year when administration is already coping with a pandemic is a hell of an ask. I would not be surprised if this project is… what’s the word? Swept under a rug. Deprioritized.

Two of Masters’ other goals might jive better with the current economic climate. She committed to developing an anti-poverty strategy and to doing away with the intensification levy. Both would fit well in a time where the city is looking for ways to mitigate the harm the pandemic is causing. Poverty supports would be great for individuals and families facing job losses and business closures. Ending the intensification levy could help stimulate construction on underused land.

But if she’s really interested in stimulating construction, she could give the long-stalled Regina Revitalization Initiative a swift kick in the pants. Development of both the Railyards lands and the former Taylor Field site have been stuck in limbo for years. Which is absurd. And as a former board chair for Regina Exhibition Association Ltd, Masters is probably aware of that.

3 RENEWABLE CITY RENEWED COMMITMENT Speaking of limbo, after several reports, a COVID-cancelled conference, a climate denier keynote scandal (a.k.a. Patrick Mooregate) and a great deal of confusion about what was supposed to be accomplished, the Renewable City pledge seems to be back on track. The city posted a call for a consultant to put together their Energy & Sustainability Framework, the document that’ll outline how Regina shifts to running 100 per cent on renewable energy by 2050. We should find out who the successful consultant is in early March. Their first job will be putting together an energy and emissions profile for the city. That means community consultations will start somewhere later in the year. I’m guessing… summer? Fall? Regardless, I’m betting it’s all online. So, no piling into a church basement and cramming all your ideas onto a sticky note. It’ll be different, I guess. But how am I supposed to stock up on pens? Damn COVID.

4 HERITAGE MATTERS NOW? After years where preserving heritage buildings has been an afterthought at council, a line has been drawn in the sand. Twice last year, council imposed heritage designations on houses over the objections of the building owners. The first, a designation on the Bagshaw Residence in the Crescents, is being appealed to the provincial heritage review board; a report on that should be coming soon. As for the second heritage building, the Cook House, maybe you’ve seen the yellow signs calling for its preservation that’ve popped up around Lakeview? Seems the owner isn’t taking the forced heritage designation sitting down. He’s bringing a counter-proposal to council in the spring in which he claims he’ll preserve 90 per cent of the heritage facade and incorporate it into the structure of a new 16-unit condo building (with 25 stalls worth of underground parking).

Sixteen condo units and 25 underground parking stalls? In Lakeview? Good luck with that.

Anyway, the city has signalled to developers that they aren’t going to be rubber stamping demolitions of heritage buildings in future. Let’s see if the development community gets the message.

5 CAPITAL POINTELESS As of the writing of this column, we still don’t know if Smith Street Lands and Magnetic Capital have decided to purchase 1971 Albert St (the Capital Pointe lot) after council rebuffed their request for property tax relief. If the sale goes through, they’re turning the lot into surface parking (just for a year, they promise) and then they’re going to build something super awesome (but have yet to share what that is exactly). If they back out of the deal, the city will be seeking remediation for $2.8 million in unpaid property taxes. That could result in the city owning the lot sometime later in the year. So, that’s fun.

6 PARKING PARKING PARKING As this paper is being printed, city council is considering a report on temporary downtown surface parking. That’s a whole huge thing and I’m out of words. Check out on Friday, Jan. 15 for a web-exclusive on how the surface parking debate goes down.

[1] City hall is already supporting the local business community through their Regina Economic Recovery Grants. That’s in Phase 2 now and is offering grants of up to $25,000 to support the sustainability of local businesses through the pandemic and beyond.

[2] New Style Council is the name of my neoNew Wave band and “Allons-y Attitude” is our first single. Watch for it. (Also, parenthetically, the Tenth Doctor: still the best Doctor.)