How Edmonton can leverage its advantage on processing building permits

As your city councillor I will work with city staff to reduce needless barriers to increase the time and cost for job creating initiatives.

An important question was raised on Parliament Hill recently about your ability as a business to get the required permits to build a warehouse, which will inherently create jobs. After some digging I found out that Edmonton has a leg up on the City of Toronto in the amount of time, beginning to end, on how long it takes to get through the permitting process. 

And with a concerted effort by the City’s Administration and the Planning branch, more red tape can be reduced, potentially putting Edmonton in the lead in all of Canada.

It turns out Edmonton is in the same ball park as other leading countries. On Tuesday, April 13, the CD Howe institute presented to Parliament's Industry Committee on permit wait times globally according to World Bank data:

-South Korea: 28 days

-Singapore: 36 days

-Denmark: 65 days

-Finland: 65 days

-Toronto: 249 days

Strong potential for Edmonton and Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi 

MP Pierre Poilievre and Edmonton's Deputy City Manager Stephanie McCabe can agree on one thing: Canada is not good at tracking this kind of data. However she was able to provide a couple of encouraging examples, that has Edmonton business owners receiving permits in up to double digit days as opposed to over 8 months in Toronto.

One is a purpose-built warehouse in the Mistatim Industrial area in the city’s northwest for a U.S. pharmaceutical company that got their permits in 43 days. “The city worked closely with the builder,” McCabe said adding the project brought high-skill jobs, and improved Edmonton’s reputation with investors. “The developer also told us that because of the speed of the building permit process, they were able to secure a major institutional partner to invest in further industrial redevelopment.”

Another project was an expansion on an existing site, best described as a brewery/distillery project. The City again worked closely with the builder and was able to deliver their development permit in 31 days from application.

Home builders like Edmonton, too

Edmonton scored well in a survey from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. We came in number two behind Regina in the amount of time it takes from start to finish in the permitting process. 

And there is room to improve, as Edmonton was 17th in government charges, while being first in planning features and 4th in approvals timelines. Credit has been given to the city’s concierge service for speeding up the process.

With the new city plan that strives for 15-minute communities, this faster service should encourage more coordinated construction to fill in any gaps that exist, especially with more calls for the “missing middle” style of low-rise housing that can be an anchor to the town-centre approach that brings together a larger mix of residential and commercial development.

More can be done says a prominent business leader

Grant Fedoruk, the president of Leading Edge Physiotherapy said he’s encouraged by this for large projects, based on “how the city worked with the builder.” He credits the city in how it helps customers navigate the system who are “a someone, because you get the kind of attention needed for permitting.” 

“If you are a little local guy like me, you don’t.”

Grant  told me there are concerns from his industry about how Edmonton insists on his and other worksites having to have the same type of ventilation policy that is equal to other health care facilities. “This standard adds 40% to the cost of the ventilation system and makes physio clinic design ventilation as though we are performing medical procedures. This does not exist for physio clinics anywhere else in Canada.”  

Decision makers want consistency from a municipality, and quick access because time is money. I’ll make sure that’s what Edmonton strives for. 


Do you get the feeling city council says “yes” to everything?

With the month of March coming to a close, taxes that are too high seems to be a recurring theme. Maybe the T-word is top of mind because we’re all having to take part in our annual check-in with Ottawa.

I’m hoping to find ways to keep more money in your bank account by keeping property taxes as low as possible. That’s by reducing spending at city hall. A way to do that is resisting the call to add programs, and increase services.

A question that is not asked enough on city council, and something I hope to change, is “what’s the downside to not doing this?” A couple of items came across my desk recently that drive that point home.

One shows the taxpayers’ emotion over who foots the bill. The “Nextdoor” bulletin board website saw a complaint about compounding double digit “tax increases” over the past ten years. Mention was made too about city council’s fascination with “shiny objects”. Ironically the post was removed by the moderators after reply comments became too politically charged for a website not intended for political discourse.

Economic professors weigh in

The other document comes from the University of Calgary School of Public Policy which warns about the dangers of rising commercial property taxes and the negative impact they have on investment. It’s a research paper co-authored by Bev Dahlby, Ergete Ferede and Mukesh Khanal from the University of Alberta, MacEwan University and the University of Calgary. 

Bottom line, it validates what we’ve heard before in the previous claims of the business community that rising non-residential property taxes are harmful for both business and the City as a whole.

“When considering an increase in their non-residential property tax rates, Alberta municipalities must also take into account the adverse effects such an increase will likely have on business investment in their communities. Based on data on commercial and industrial permit values for 17 Alberta cities from 1998 to 2017, this paper shows that increasing the non-residential property tax rate corresponds to a drop in businesses investment in buildings and structures. Raising the non-residential property tax rate by, for example, 10 per cent results in a seven per cent drop in business investment.”

Where to go from here 

Edmonton over the last couple of decades has followed a policy to do two kinds of construction: build new, and rehab what’s already in place. And it’s slowly shifted from the former to the latter. That work helps with job creation, and gives us good value for money. 

Long term savings can be found, as council looks to supporting the campaign to end homelessness, as it tries to lift our vulnerable population out of poverty, while reducing the expenses in healthcare and policing.

As new neighbourhoods crop up, we'll be faced with the reality that they cost more to build, compared to the tax revenue they bring in over their lifespan. It's an inescapable reality. It's been that way for decades.

It's why the city plan, looking at a population of 2-million promotes infill, and 15-minute communities. But there is enough space for both building in Rossdale, the Exhibition Lands, Blatchford and along transit corridors.

Just don't dismiss our inventory in Ipiikhookhanipiaohhtsi of new communities that young couples are attracted to as a first home.

So sure, spend on bridge maintenance, or fixing roofs, even re-cladding buildings and upgrading HVAC systems especially when the project pays for itself in energy savings over a set period of time. 

Yet is an Office of the Integrity Commissioner, coupled with an ethics advisor needed? How about re-examining how large the budget is for ad space, and air time to promote programs that people know about already? And maybe it’s time to bite the bullet on high-cost, low-return hours of operation on rec facilities, and concentrate on running programs when the bulk of the population will use them? Repurpose the single sheet ice rinks with a partner to share costs? That's something identified in the city's "reimagine plan" that I agree with.

Let’s stick with the need to haves. Once we get that in order we'll have time to worry about the nice to haves later. 


EIA is a major economic driver for Ipiikhookhanipiaohtsi

Let me tell you about a visit I made this week to the Edmonton International Airport. A long planned tour of the campus provided me with an eye-opening look at what is a growing economic driver for Edmonton and Ipiikhookhanipiaohtsi.

Lynn Wyton, the airport’s director of strategic business connections, who doubled as my tour guide, said the anticipation is to grow the workforce by another 10,000 to 26,000 by 2025. 

While everyone is hurting because of COVID-19, EIA is weathering the storm. Across it’s 70,000 acres, economic output is $3.2 billion a year, led by steady gains made in cargo. 

One thing that is keeping business humming, is Edmonton International’s geography on the Asia to North America cargo flightpath. Anchorage, Edmonton’s competition is punching above its weight, yet Edmonton is more than hanging in there.

Cargo is helping diversify Edmonton’s and Alberta’s economies. A growing business is in value-added agricultural products. Not just the ones grown in Leduc County, but from all over the west. Wyton pointed out Washington State cherries as an example. Trucked in from south of the border, they’re on Edmonton’s tarmac, loaded in cargo planes and on Asian store shelves in a matter of 36 hours. The same can be said for products from all over B.C. and Alberta.

Investment is being driven into EIA. A second billion dollars in infrastructure has now been invested. DHL, Purolator, FedEx and others have facilities sitting on the apron. Rosenau Trucking is a major player that wasn’t imaginable a few years ago. You know about the Premium Outlet Mall, and the Costco as the airport’s real estate portfolio continues to grow. There’s the race track, and Aurora Sky covering several acres as well.

Job losses from a year ago are now on the rebound

No doubt, the largest task facing Edmonton over the next several years is getting people back to work. And a lot of factors will have to go into that, including keeping costs as low as possible for business owners, while allowing them to maximize efficiency.

When the Bank of Canada maintained its trendsetting policy interest rate at 0.25 percent Wednesday it also cautioned, “there is still considerable economic slack and a great deal of uncertainty about the evolution of the virus and the path of economic growth. The labour market is a long way from recovery, with employment still well below pre-COVID levels. 

Edmonton city council has a key role to play with transit

While the airport lies just outside of Edmonton’s boundaries, our city council needs to give it the tools it needs. Council can do this by supporting Route 747, which serves as the city’s chief public transit between EIA and Century Park.

Route 747 is a vital transportation link for our region, including for many Edmontonians who work in the area. That includes young folks starting out on their careers, new Canadians establishing an economic foothold for their families, and folks who do not have access to a car or choose not to drive.

For visitors coming to Edmonton from other places in Canada and around the world, the 747 bus may provide their first impression of Edmonton. It might be their best option getting into the city. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get into our city. Let’s make a good first impression, and encourage visitors and investors to come here.

I’m making the commitment to ensuring the 747 not only maintains its current shared schedule with Leduc and the airport, but service grows as airport activity increases in the coming years. 

Plenty of money woes at City Hall

It was supposed to get better, but it didn’t. A recent audit pointed out how much was spent at City Hall on consulting services. The bill came in at almost $600 million over the five years from 2015 to 2019.

That’s over and above what was found in 2017 by a whopping 32 percent. 

Tracking the money was difficult, as entries were miscoded, the audit reports. “As a result financial reporting related to the City’s consulting expenses has been inaccurate by $245 million in total over the last five years.” 

An overwhelming segment of this consulting work is for capital projects as outside engineers, architects or other technical experts are brought in, because the expertise is not “in house” among city staff. 

Why it’s done this way

Senior management with the city will explain this as saying the scope of a project will grow, so the contracts will be extended as an additional year or two will be added to the overall work. 

The premise is also that outside consultants are overall less expensive, as they are paid on a per-project basis, and cheaper than having individuals on staff permanently. 

Yet I can see problems continuing to get worse, not better. What got me wanting to put my name forward to be part of the next city council was an earlier audit this past fall that you’ve all heard about, where city auditor David Wiun was critical of the “managers managing managers” syndrome that has grown at City Hall. 

A chance for a fresh start on spending priorities

I’m hoping the top to bottom review of City Hall budgets, brought on because of the COVID-19 reassessment of what is priority spending and what isn’t, will reduce financial pressure and mean only those projects that are considered of utmost importance will go ahead. 

We already know that a three year drop in the construction grant the province gives cities, the Municipal Sustainability Initiative [MSI] is taking a $150 million chunk out of Edmonton’s budget. 

That cut is on top of the agreement that was in place between the city, and the province, but was ripped up unilaterally by the Kenney government a couple of years ago when the money woes hit under the dome.

What is clear, is there is not a lot of money around to be had, so focused decisions will need to be made on spending priorities over the next four years. 

It doesn’t mean saying “no” to every proposal. Each project should be judged on if it brings value. If there is a way to run buses from the new Heritage Valley transit centre and park’n’ride to the Century Park LRT more efficiently then the investment should gain council approval. 

In many ways, since the money simply won’t be there council should say “yes” to the projects that make sense. 


Edmonton city council needs to help EPCOR promote emerging business opportunities

An update from Canada’s Auditor General pointed out that First Nations communities will face the prospect of not having safe drinking water for several years.

Ninety-nine drinking water advisories have been lifted since 2015, however 57 remain in effect said the auditor’s report released February 25.

The Provincial Budget: The latest on the hospital, LRT and housing

The basic overall plan for the provincial budget tabled last week was, cool your jets, we don’t have any money. An $18 billion deficit will do that to grandiose ideas.  

Why I’m running for city council

Many of you have heard my name for years. “Scott Johnston, 630CHED News.” My beat working in Edmonton radio was civic politics. Some even described me as the “voice of city hall.” 

Maybe you heard me on Oilers broadcasts talking to the players about wins and losses after games. 

Now I want to win with you.

Audits show city’s snow and ice policy needs improvement

A round of audit reports are coming out that join previous findings by City Auditor David Wiun’s branch showing ways that both service and value for money can be found within Edmonton’s road maintenance department.

Image courtesy City of Edmonton website

Now is the time to rid Edmonton businesses of tax eating red tape

So far they’ve talked a good game at City Hall, however the need to “walk the walk” is upon us to get rid of the red tape that is plaguing Edmonton’s businesses. Especially those job creating start-ups that are yet to get going.


Very quietly homes are selling at Blatchford

What is happening at the Blatchford development might surprise you. Especially with the pandemic wreaking havoc on Edmonton’s economy. Half-million dollar homes are selling.

Scott Johnston for Edmonton City Council