Keith Gerein: Oshry hopes multi-year tax freeze will ice out competitors in the mayor's race


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Before he served as a city councillor, local entrepreneur Michael Oshry was probably best known as the co-founder of Firma, a company that specializes in commercial currency exchange.

These days Oshry is still focused on trading, though the currency that interests him now is political capital. Specifically, he is hoping a pledge of extended restraint on city taxes can be exchanged for votes that will propel him into the mayor’s office.

“I’m not a fiscal hawk. I care about spending money appropriately. It’s time to tighten our belts a little because that’s where the world is at,” Oshry told me in a recent exclusive interview.

Tightening the belts, according to his proposal, would mean a property tax freeze in 2022, followed by a minimum one per cent tax cut in 2023. There would then be further tax freezes at that lower rate in years three and four of the plan, but only if the provincial and federal governments start stepping up their funding.


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“I am going to spend a lot of time on those relationships which I think have been soured over the last few years to make sure they are paying for what they need to pay for,” Oshry said, expressing more optimism than I have about this prospect.

The math here is eyecatching. Given that the city has already instituted tax freezes last year and this year in response to the pandemic, Oshry’s plan going ahead could mean six straight years without any increase.

When I heard the proposal, I couldn’t help but recall the last series of tax freezes instituted by the city, back in the 1990s. Though politically palatable at the time, the freezes were later blamed for the city falling behind on infrastructure and services.

Oshry insists that pattern won’t repeat itself, largely because he believes the city of 2021 is a much more bloated institution that has a lot of unnecessary spending tied up in non-core areas.

Specifics on that will be revealed later, he said, though it’s no secret there has been grumbling about the municipality’s involvement in areas like land development, certain social services and other initiatives.

“The city is chasing rainbows all over the place.”

But if Oshry wants to shrink municipal government business, what effect could that have on the critical need to grow Edmonton business?

On this front, again, less is more, in that the city’s role should be focused on “unleashing” the private sector, he said.

As an example, he shared with me another platform pledge: fast-tracking the development of Rossdale. And by fast-tracking, he really means finally making something happen after years of inertia.


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Oshry said he isn’t talking about condos, but rather types of businesses that would bring people to the riverfront and the old power plant building, whether that be restaurants, markets or a tech innovation hub — all guided by an unleashed private sector.

To pay for the necessary public development, he said, the city might use profits from the sale of suburban land, or a community revitalization levy.

There’s a sense out there that Edmonton may have more need right now for an economic recovery mayor than a social policy mayor, and these two proposals will certainly get Oshry cast in that category.

But the 54-year-old entrepreneur is sensitive to the idea that he would neglect social issues. His family history includes Jewish grandparents fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and his parents leaving apartheid South Africa when he was eight.

As such, he says issues like racism, poverty, and climate change are important to him. He just feels the city has spent too much time on talk and study instead of action.

Of course, as mayor, Oshry would need buy-in from council colleagues. That brings up the question of his leadership style and his potential to get aggravated with the trappings of government.

By his own admission, he grew frustrated during his four years on council to the point that he decided not to seek re-election — a decision that cost him valuable name recognition — so why does he think it would be different this time?

To this, he said: “It’s important the mayor gets everything they can out of members of council and that people’s previous experiences are an asset. When I was there … it just wasn’t an atmosphere where the talents of the whole team were being used.”


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Make of that what you will.

One person who is sold on Oshry is Coun. Michael Walters, who was considered a potential mayoral contender at one point himself but has decided not to come back to council. He is serving as one of the coordinators of Oshry’s campaign.

“I think we need an authentically business-friendly, progressive mayor,” Walters said. “Michael is the epitome of the right leader for now. Successful, experienced and humble. More action than big talk.”

I think Oshry’s fiscal plan will be popular with property owners (who are pretty consistent voters), though I do worry about it potentially starting a race to the bottom in which several of the mayoral contenders try to outdo each other in tax and spending cuts.

I also think he may be expressing dodgy optimism on a few fronts, particularly in his belief of avoiding fights with the province and unions, and in getting around the complexity of certain social issues.

Spending cuts, though probably inevitable, are still going to be painful. Only time will tell if Oshry’s vision is the kind of exchange voters are willing to make.


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