Saturday, May 31, 2014

Solution 8: Specialized Municipality (Part 2)

I've found the opposition to this solution has three general areas:

  • Values
  • Taxes
  • The "Black Hole" Effect


The premise of all of my arguments in these blog posts has been that we are one big community who all use each other's services.

Some people do not see it that way.  The farmer out in the Goodfare area may not feel very connected to the folks in the City.  Her values may very well be different.  She might not care about her taxes funding a new park in the City, but she cares very much about drainage problems in her ditches.  The tow truck driver in the City may not value having a seniors home in Hythe.  Often this debate is formed around urban vs. rural values.

A couple things to say to this:

First, I don't believe municipalities should be formed around values.  If we did, we would have to have millions of them.  We don't create a "downtown" municipality for the urbanites or a "parks & playgrounds" municipality for young families.  Municipalities should be formed around communities of people that interact with each other on a regular basis, regardless of the diversity of values.  Even the farmer from Goodfare commutes to the City regularly for supplies and the tow truck driver has to serve customers in Hythe.

Within communities there are many values.  In a regional municipality you would want to ensure that everyone's values are reflected at the Council table.  This is why it would be crucial to have representation from all over, so that issues like ditch drainage are not passed over.  In the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (which includes Fort McMurray and 9 smaller communities), Fort McMurray elects 6 councillors and the remaining areas are divided into wards which elect 4 councillors between them.  The mayor is elected at large by everyone.  I could see the RM of GP having a similar setup.

Second, a large portion of the people in the County right now are essentially living an urban lifestyle.  Living on a one-acre lot in Carriage Lane doesn't quite qualify as "country living" in my books.  Even the subdivision with 3-acre lots I grew up on 20 minutes from the city could hardly be called "rural".  Thus, I think that the belief that the County has a unique rural identity and can better serve rural interests is greatly mistaken.

Third, you don't have to give up your lifestyle as part of a specialized municipality.  Some people love living in small towns.  Some people love living on acreages.  Some love living in downtown condos.  A specialized municipality recognizes that there are these different values and helps ensure everyone can live together no matter what their lifestyle is.


Reason 2: I don't want my taxes to go up. 

Neither do I.

There are many scenarios which could play out with tax rates.  One scenario would be to equalize all rates completely; it would look something like this:

There would be almost no change in farmland taxes.  County businesses would only see a minimal increase in their rates.  County residences would see their taxes raised by a couple points.  With that said, in an amalgamation deal you would likely have a phase in period so that all affected taxpayers would gradually move to new regional rates over a period of say, 10 years.

As for the towns and village, there would only be minimal changes as their current rates are in between the City's and County's right now and are already close to what a regional rate would likely be.  All City taxpayers, residential and business, would see a decrease in their taxes as new regional mil rates would be a point or two lower than current City rates. 

But Rory, why should I have to pay more taxes if the costs of delivery services to my acreage are less?

Good point.  There are some developments in the region that use much cheaper storm water management systems (ie. ditches) and have lower transportation costs (ex. snow removal costs are lower).  To address this, you could have a Rural Low Density tax rate for properties "x" distance from the city that would be lower to address these differences.

Also, it's important to note that if a portion of the MD's oil and gas revenues were included in the mix, there would be downward pressure on everybody's taxes.  With only 1/4 of the MD's linear and M&E revenue, we could all enjoy the rates being paid by County residents now.  No one's taxes would have to increase.

So there are many different scenarios which could play out in a regional municipality.  I believe the best scenario would have to align the level of service a resident gets with the amount of taxes they pay.  It's all a question of fairness.

The "Black Hole" Effect

Reason 3: If we're a regional municipality, the bigger urban centres would have the greatest level of representation, would dominate the agenda, and get most the resources at the expense of outlying areas.

This is a legitimate concern in any merger.  That the big partner ignores the little partners.

My response:

There are a number of ways you would ensure this doesn't happen.

Again, you would have representation from all areas, so all areas would have a voice at the Council table.

You could also set up a system of discretionary funds whereby each population centre would be ensured a certain amount of funding each year.

In Strathcona County (which includes Sherwood Park, 8 hamlets, and lots of farmland), they make sure their committee structure reflects the diversity of the municipality.  For example, it has an Agriculture Service Board to ensure the County's rural policies do not escape Council's attention.  Strathcona also has a Governance Advisory Committee which ensures bylaws and policies are working for both urban and rural residents. 

Strathcona has been an excellent model of what a regional municipality could look like.  And it hasn't been Sherwood Park-centric.  For example, the tiny hamlet of Ardrossan (population: 434) just had a $21 million dollar recreational facility built there to serve residents in the central part of the municipality. 

My personal viewpoint is that this wouldn't be much of an issue.  Most people in GP are connected to other people in the area through business, family, history, etc.  In my experience, people want the whole region to thrive.  They want the best camping facilities, the best biking trails, the best roads, the best cultural facilities.  We truly function as one community and I believe elected officials would support this vision.

There would certainly be many challenges in the creation and operation of a regional municipality.  However, there are many creative minds in our region who would come up with innovative solutions to each challenge. 

Okay Rory...I think I know where you stand...but let's hear it...what's the best solution?

Specialized Municipality.

If we want the region to grow sustainably and equitably, I believe it is the ultimate solution.  Financially it makes sense, planning-wise it makes sense, and in terms of fairness, there is no other solution that works as well.

My hope is that the other municipalities in the region would see the value in combining our strengths to grow the region as one municipal unit.  We truly function as one community.  We shouldn't have to take from one area to give to another and constantly be fighting over who gets what.  It just makes sense for our municipal systems to be aligned with reality. 

Our region is already aligned as one in many ways.  Our Chamber of Commerce serves the region, we have one Homebuilders Association, the GP Regional College, the GP Regional Hospital, and the Community Foundation of Northwestern Alberta which recently changed to reflect its service to the region. 

While a specialized municipality would be ideal in my view, in the absence of a willingness from neighbouring municipalities or the Province to explore the idea, I think a revenue sharing deal and regional planning reform would be the next ideal solutions.

And now your turn...

Which solution or solutions do you feel will best address the region's problems? What municipal system is going to best allow the region to thrive?

1 comment:

  1. Very informative, so much info, innovative, interesting, exciting. Quite possibly the best solution for the region and is something that should be debated and discussed at length