UCP Leadership Contestant Q&A

UCP leadership hopefuls recently received an ABmunis questionnaire that focuses on some of the biggest challenges our member-communities currently face. We are sharing their responses as we receive them. Note: The answers are sorted alphabetically by the last name of the contestants.

Please click each topic heading below to review what they have to say about the priority issues facing Alberta’s communities.

Additionally, as part of our 2022 Convention program, we have arranged an opportunity for members to hear directly from United Conservative Party leadership contenders. Each candidate will deliver opening remarks and then respond to a series of questions submitted by members.

In June 2020, the province released the Fair Deal Panel's report, which included a recommendation to create an Alberta Provincial Police Service (APPS) to replace the RCMP. In October 2020, the province contracted PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a feasibility study into the creation of an APPS. This study was released in October 2021, but it doesn't answer the most pressing questions municipalities have about a provincial police service, including how the APPS will be funded and what service levels municipalities can expect. In the spring, 2022, both ABmunis and RMA members voted to strongly oppose the APPS models proposed in the PwC feasibility study.

Do you support establishing a new, independent APPS to replace the RCMP in Alberta?

Leela Aheer: We’re concerned about crime in our communities—urban and rural. Service levels and response times aren’t meeting expectations in much of the province. We’re asking too much of our police —we’re asking our police to be social workers, and emergency responders. It is time to let police focus on police work not social work. Instead of spending hundreds of millions on transitioning to a provincial police force I will listen to municipalities and fund more police services and fund supports to let police focus on police work. I would support Municipalities which wish to transition away from the RCMP to local police—If Camrose can do it so can High River. We’d encourage municipalities to work together. We need to listen to local officials, and not impose top down decisions which will cost hundreds of millions a year.

Rebecca Schulz: We’ve heard clearly from municipal leaders and many Albertans that an Alberta Provincial Police is a top priority at this time. We need to address rural crime and community safety, but there are significant questions about cost and bureaucracy. We could instead invest additional dollars into a rural crime and a community safety task force to reduce response times. More consultation needs to be done before moving forward.

Danielle Smith: Our UCP members have voted to adopt an Alberta Provincial Police to either augment or replace the RCMP and the Fair Deal Panel also heard support for an APP. I will not have a referendum because there are 10 municipalities that have their own service, including Calgary and Edmonton. Large cities do not get to veto an approach that would deliver better policing to rural residents. I will start an APP as an augmentation to the RCMP as quickly as possible to address critical gaps in policing that involve rural property crime, mental health and addiction, human trafficking and deployment of Search and Rescue. When we proceed to replace the RCMP we will ensure rural municipalities receive better service at lower cost.

Travis Toews: Rural crime is a real problem. I am committed to increasing safety for all Albertans by improving policing services. I have deep respect for the RCMP and the work they do to provide safety to Albertans however there is, within the organization, a culture of risk-aversion and overly centralized decision-making that, at times, hampers a timely, effective response on the ground. I believe there is merit in exploring a provincial police service. This could reduce bureaucracy, create more boots on the ground in rural Alberta, and lead to an improved culture in the policing service. This is not a policy I would implement on day one. Before moving forward, I would ensure rural Albertans and municipal leaders ultimately support the decision.

Alberta recorded its deadliest year on record for drug overdoses in 2021, with 1,758 deaths. There were  685 deaths reported in 2016; this number grew to 1,351 in 2020. 

In November 2019, a Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council was appointed to develop a new provincial mental health and addiction strategy. The Council was mandated with identifying key actions to improve access to recovery-oriented mental health and addiction services, with a focus on primary and home care services, as well as people in crisis or in contact with the justice system.

The Council’s report, Toward an Alberta Model of Wellness, was publicly released in April 2022. The  report establishes a goal of creating “a coordinated network providing a continuum of supports  (prevention, early intervention, harm reduction, treatment, and recovery) for people at risk of or suffering  from addiction and mental health challenges.” The report’s recommendations "acknowledge the severity  of the ongoing opioid crisis and seek to find recovery-oriented solutions, inclusive of service that reduce  harm, as well as other integrated health and social services.”

Do you support the inclusion and appropriate funding of harm reduction services, including supervised consumption sites and supportive housing, in the provincial mental health and addictions strategy?

Leela Aheer: I support harm reduction services, including supervised consumption sites and supportive housing.

Rebecca Schulz: We need to support a full recovery-oriented continuum of care to address mental health and addictions. To address these challenges, we need to work with municipalities to address the mental health and addiction challenges in our communities, also recognizing it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. While it’s encouraging to see recent reports that opioid-related deaths continue to decline compared to the numbers we saw last year, there is more work to be done. Harm reduction is one piece of the continuum, but the goal is treatment and recovery. Housing is also something that’s been raised by municipalities, and we must have all relevant ministries and non-profit organizations at the table with municipalities as we work to address these issues.

Danielle Smith: I support a treatment first strategy. Anyone who wants treatment should be given access to a program that provides long term support from emergency admission, to inpatient treatment, to outpatient support. I think the proposal from Chief Rick Hansen to sentence addicts who are causing harm to themselves and others in specialized treatment facilities is the correct approach. Any harm reduction approach must be coupled with a treatment pathway so we do not simply enable addiction and dependency.

Travis Toews: I would work with municipal partners to implement the report’s recommendations. I will continue to support a recovery-oriented system of care. I remain committed to establishing a full continuum of care for people struggling with addiction, including prevention, intervention, services to reduce harm, treatment, and recovery, an approach advocated by experts across the province and the country. I support the significant steps the province has done to address the addiction crisis. This includes the addition of more than 8,000 new publicly funded treatment spaces, the elimination of daily user fees for publicly funded residential addiction treatment, and building new recovery communities across the province. I will continue to work tirelessly to address addiction and support more people in their pursuit of recovery from addiction.

The recent case of Justin Bone illustrates the gaps in Alberta’s justice, health, and social services. Bone was released from the Edmonton Remand Centre on bail in late April 2022 and ordered to attend an addictions treatment centre. He has since been charged with two counts of second-degree murder. There is a pressing need to ensure that Albertans who transition out of provincial systems and institutions,  including incarceration, hospitals, and foster care, receive the supports they require to successfully rejoin their communities. 

What solutions would you implement to ensure the successful transition of Albertans out of provincial systems back into their communities?

Leela Aheer: At the intersection of multiple services many of which are overburdened, it is tragic, though not surprising, that tragedies occur. At the core of that intersection is housing—too many people have been left to fall through the cracks without access to supportive and available housing. We need to ensure the supply of housing enables a housing first model.

Rebecca Schulz: A Schulz government would work with relevant community partners and agencies, and push multiple ministries to come together, to find common sense solutions to challenges in our justice system - this will include working with municipalities. Albertans have also expressed concerns with “catch-and-release” in the justice system, resulting in repeated offences, especially in rural crime.

Danielle Smith: In the documentary Seattle is Dying, the filmmakers proposed a solution that is being used in Rhode Island, where dangerous addicts are taken to a treatment centre for their incarceration and released into the community with wraparound supports when they are released. That would be the model I would like to take a closer look at to see if we can adopt it here.

Travis Toews: First of all, we need to address the revolving door of chronic criminals across Alberta – some of these people shouldn’t be getting out in the first place. We also need to improve addictions treatment because some of these repeat offenders have an addiction problem more than a criminality one, and hopefully we can get to them before their drug habit becomes a criminal lifestyle. I’ve seen a lot of collaboration between our health and addictions departments and municipalities, but I would specifically task the health ministry with addressing these gaps and that will above all require strong collaboration with our municipalities.

Given the global competition for business and labour, regional collaboration is essential for municipalities to efficiently provide the planning and services to attract talent and economic development.

What steps will you take to resolve inter-municipal and regional conflict and how will you encourage and support collaboration?

Collaboration is also required between federal, provincial, and municipal orders of government in order to efficiently use taxpayer dollars to provide quality infrastructure and services to Alberta residents and businesses.

How will you help make this happen?

Leela Aheer: We must be more accepting of healthy disagreement, and take the time to find solutions. Applying the concept of subsidiarity, municipalities should be mindful of the signals they send when there is long-term intractable conflict: perhaps the subject of the conflict should not be within the exclusive purview of the individual municipalities. The province as the coordinator of requests under many if not most federal infrastructure granting programs has a duty to ensure projects which affect multiple municipalities are in the best interests of those municipalities and the province. With a new federal infrastructure agreement likely in the 2023-27 period we hope that municipalities are thinking today about what projects they wish to have advanced by the mid 2030s.

Rebecca Schulz: Collaboration is essential, but the relationships have to be working for everyone. Midsize and rural communities have different needs than the major centres and that has to be reflected in how we work together. I’d agree that collaboration between all levels of government is necessary given there is only one taxpayer and we have to give them value for their dollars while improving services and infrastructure. My approach is to sit at the table, have the tough conversations and find solutions to the problems we face. It’s also not just one ministry responsible for these relationships - it starts at the top and has to be a focus for the whole government.

Danielle Smith: In 2006, leadership candidate Lyle Oberg saw that the education property tax was generating $1.2 billion and essentially going into provincial general revenues as education is no longer funded through this tax. He proposed changing this tax so it would stay in municipalities as the provincial contribution to capital projects. Today the education tax generates $2.5 billion and it will only grow. I’d like to talk to municipalities about making the change to having the provincial property tax stay in the municipalities as a permanent tax change to replace provincial transfers. In return, I’d like to see cities reduce the large tax gap between residential and non residential properties that exists in some municipalities, and create a streamlined permit approval process to encourage businesses to locate to Alberta. Candidates in the last mayoral race proposed “mandatory yes” policies when it comes to permitting, where the permit was assumed approved in 30 days unless the government told them no and the reasons why. These two changes will stimulate more revenues and more business attraction and largely address the regional conflict described above. I look forward to consulting more on this change of approach.

Travis Toews: I do think regional economic development coordination makes sense but giving municipalities a veto on development decisions in neighboring municipalities is too much control. Transit partnerships are also a great idea and we’re seeing that, especially around Edmonton, but forcing it from the provincial level is too blunt of an instrument. Every region has its own dynamics though so it’s not one-size-fits-all and we should be wary of expecting bureaucrats in Edmonton to sort out every inter-municipal challenge. I believe the best outcomes will be a result of coordinated planning by municipalities operating in good faith. The province doesn’t have all the answers. Often it is up to the regional officials and the folks who elected them to want to cooperate before any progress can be made.

The provincial and federal governments have access to revenue sources (income and sales taxes) that are closely related to economic growth. Property tax, the main source of tax revenue for municipalities, is not growth sensitive, which constrains the ability to raise the revenue needed to provide the services that contribute to a high quality of life. The result is less than adequate revenue available to municipal government to fund its program responsibilities.

Do you believe there is a fiscal imbalance between municipalities and the provincial government, and if so, how do you plan to rectify it? What tax reforms do you favour? Are there additional fiscal and legislative measures you’d implement to create a lasting, long-term solution to municipal funding?

The Local Government Fiscal Framework Act was passed by the legislature in fall 2019. Like any program,  the Local Government Fiscal Framework (LGFF) has its strengths and weaknesses.

One of the shortfalls is revenue adequacy. When announced, the starting amount of LGFF was set at  $860 million, which is 25 per cent below the historical average levels of the Municipal Sustainability  Initiative (MSI) and Basic Municipal Transportation Grant (BMTG). In Budget 2021, the province took the disappointing step to defer implementation of LGFF until 2024 and reduce the starting amount from  $860 million to $722 million. This will be 36 per cent lower than the previous ten-year historical average of MSI and BMTG.  

Additionally, the funding pool is set to grow at only half the rate of provincial revenues. This presents long term challenges for municipalities as the funding will not keep pace with Alberta's economy or local community needs.

What are your views on increasing the starting amount of LGFF and removing the 50 per cent limitation in the revenue index factor so that annual changes in LGFF will match annual changes in provincial revenue?

Leela Aheer: I do not believe there is a fiscal imbalance between the province and municipal governments. If citizens of local governments demand services beyond what current levels of taxation will support, it is incumbent on local government to begin a debate in the community on the optimum balance of service levels and taxation the community is prepared to support. Property taxes can be made growth sensitive quite easily, the constraint is in the will of municipal leaders to do so. I believe that the government in the best position to deliver services informed by local knowledge and preferences should be the level of government to deliver that service, unless economies of scale or significant and expensive expertise is needed to deliver the services. In a word, in the concept of subsidiarity. These services should be funded by local revenue sources when practical, so that voters are able to connect the level of services delivered by local government to the level of local taxation. The provincial role in many services is to ensure that every community has the ability to provide a minimum service standard, and that to meet the standard, that no community requires a ruinous level of taxation. I believe that the overall envelope of the LGFF should grow. I would be open to updating the model which would reduce the pro-cyclical bias which exists in the current design, and recognizes the difficulty with funding multi-year projects when provincial allocations can be volatile.

Rebecca Schulz: There’s only one taxpayer between the province and municipalities, and each level of government has different roles and responsibilities. A Schulz government will work with municipal leaders to review long-term funding programs.

Danielle Smith: As above, I’d like the current provincial property tax to replace provincial transfers so municipalities have sufficient, stable, long term revenues that will grow over time, without having to wait for provincial approvals on critical infrastructure.

Travis Toews: Revenue and tax structure should be reviewed periodically to ensure appropriateness and efficiency. Municipal funding and revenue collection should be included in this type of review. I’m not opposed to the concept of providing more tax room to municipalities and reducing provincial government grant support, but this would take a coordinated and thorough review to ensure it works across the board. Fiscal discipline will continue to matter in the province (and with municipalities), but much has changed in the Alberta economy since budget 2021. I would be willing to review the planned funding levels in the LGFF and especially the escalator factor. I’ve made that commitment before and I stand by it.

Many Albertans are increasingly struggling to access quality, affordable housing. What are your plans to deal with the current housing shortage in Alberta? 

Leela Aheer: We need to ensure the supply of housing enables a housing first model.

Rebecca Schulz: When we look at other provinces such as BC or Ontario, housing affordability is an advantage. We need to work with municipal partners to ensure we continue to meet housing supply needs, and are removing barriers, (including building permit wait time and red tape) which have been identified in some communities across the province. This means all types of housing, including mixed-income, mixed-use, tiny homes, single family, and secondary suites.

Danielle Smith: The province and municipalities both need to do an inventory of the land they own and make it available to developers and homebuilders at an affordable price. We also need to work together to streamline the permit approval process so projects can get approved and built faster. We must avoid making home ownership unaffordable by adding excessive costs through development levies and unreasonable building code requirements, some of which can inflate the cost of homes by tens of thousands of dollars. We must accept that much of the escalation in costs for homes is often due to inefficient bureaucratic approval processes, levies and unnecessary delays.

Travis Toews: Inflation is a real issue that requires sound fiscal policy and a focus on efficiency. Housing starts are up 9.1% over last year so that is good news – but so is in-migration so we are looking at continued housing and labor pressures. Developers in Alberta face the lowest tax rates and it is important we maintain that to attract all kinds of investment, including housebuilding. Part of the problem is municipal zoning and permitting. So, I would hope municipalities would take a close look at their barriers on the municipal side and would work to seek out some best practices around density, brownfield sites as well as greenfield developments. I will continue to partner with municipalities on effective low-income housing development.

A viable transportation system plays an important role in developing strong and sustainable communities.  Investing in responsive public transit systems can address both these issues and have the added benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when our citizens choose transit over driving their vehicles.

How would you work with municipalities to develop a provincial transportation strategy to support public transit?

Leela Aheer: I believe that the government in the best position to deliver services informed by local knowledge and preferences should be the level of government to deliver that service, unless economies of scale or significant and expensive expertise is needed to deliver the services. In a word, in the concept of subsidiarity. Transit is a service which benefits greatly from local knowledge.

Rebecca Schulz: Municipalities should have access to the funds required to pay for the services they are required to provide for their citizens. Ottawa, the province and municipalities have to work together on this, taking into account the various requirements of large and small communities. Again, though, these projects have to be managed in a way that demonstrates accountability and transparency for taxpayers.

Danielle Smith: I think the Green Line and Valley Line projects show the peril of overengineered and risky megaprojects. Bus rapid transit may turn out to be the best option for public transit, along with ride sharing, and building more complete communities so people can live and work close to home. I would take a close look at what went wrong in these projects to understand the cost escalation so we can avoid similar problems in the future.

Travis Toews: Our Capital Plan over the next 3 years is about $20 billion, and of the $5.8 billion going to municipalities, nearly half of that is for transit. LRT expansion is the biggest single item in the capital plan. The pandemic may have altered the equation somewhat on demand as people work from home. I’ve heard repeatedly that transit stations, trains, and buses are increasingly unsafe. We need better enforcement in the large cities if you expect regular folks to use it. Transportation technology is rapidly changing, and we need to be flexible, but my government would continue to strongly support public transit.

In recent budgets the provincial government has downloaded costs and responsibilities to municipalities.  This includes the significant reduction to Grants in Place of Taxes (GIPOT) and the municipal share of fine revenue.

What actions would you take to reverse the seven-year trend of downloading and passing the cost of public service onto municipal governments?

Leela Aheer: I would endeavor to increase grants in place of taxes to previous levels, and then increase them guided by inflation. As for service allocation in general, I believe that the government in the best position to deliver services informed by local knowledge and preferences should be the level of government to deliver that service, unless economies of scale or significant and expensive expertise is needed to deliver the services. In a word, in the concept of subsidiarity. These services should be funded by local revenue sources when practical, so that voters are able to connect the level of services delivered by local government to the level of local taxation. The provincial role in many services is to ensure that every community has the ability to provide a minimum service standard, and that to meet the standard, that no community requires a ruinous level of taxation.

Rebecca Schulz: We need to recognize there is only one taxpayer between provincial and municipal governments and we need to work together to serve Albertans. Municipal leaders have told me that they’re concerned about the potential costs a provincial police force could bring. That’s why a Schulz government will not move forward with an Alberta Provincial Police force at this time. It’s not supported by municipalities and is not top of mind for Albertans.

Danielle Smith: I believe the provincial property tax remaining in the municipalities will address a lot of the funding dispute. I’m happy to consider whether the items above also need to be reworked.

Travis Toews: The good news is that provincially we’ve done the heavy lifting to get the province to fiscal sustainability, however going forward fiscal discipline will continue to matter, provincially and municipally. I commit to reviewing the cost share of delivering government services on a program-by-program basis. I would not be opposed to making some adjustments where a defensible business case can be made.

Municipalities seek a positive, respectful partnership with the province, however, they feel the province treats them like subordinates rather than partners, with consultation on significant issues often rushed or lacking entirely. The ability to build a constructive relationship has also been hampered by a revolving door of Ministers within Municipal Affairs; ten different Ministers have held the portfolio since 2011.  Although many of these Ministers had good ideas and intentions with respect to provincial-municipal relations, this constant turnover has impeded the ability to foster a consistently strong relationship between the province and municipalities.

What would you change about the current relationship between the province and municipalities and what specific actions would you take to enhance the relationship?

Leela Aheer: I commit to keeping my Minister of Municipal Affairs in place for the full term, and empowering them to put in place tools to support municipalities so that municipalities feel empowered to deliver for their citizens.

Rebecca Schulz: One of my first commitments in this campaign was to rebuild relationships with municipalities. A Schulz government would seek to build strong partnerships and find solutions. We need to do a better job of consultation at the provincial level, but it also can’t be the job of one ministry to do this. We also need strong and stable leadership and a government that allows the province to prosper.

Danielle Smith: I am a big believer that the level of government closest to the people must have the decision making authority and revenues to make their own decisions. I believe that to have credibility in seeking a new relationship with Ottawa based on these same principles, we have to start by giving respect and resources closer to home to our municipalities. I look forward to working with you on this.

Travis Toews: If we’re going to demand that Ottawa treat Alberta with more respect, I agree that this has to go for our relationship with municipalities as well. My approach in business and life has always been one of fostering collaboration and working constructively with other parties. I carried that approach into politics in 2019 and will always lead that way. Political instability has hurt Alberta in the last decade. It will be important to elect a UCP leader and Premier that can bring in a new period of stability and unity so we can focus on solving problems, and not be constantly distracted by political ones.