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COLUMN: Municipalities need to pick a lane and stay in it

'If municipal councils wish for more autonomy, municipalities can choose to raise property taxes and stop asking for provincial grant money. If municipalities wish for more provincial grant money, these same municipalities need to stop asking for autonomy.'
0101 Crouse file
Columnist Nolan Crouse

Municipalities across Alberta appear to be sending mixed messages to provincial leaders about their grant funding demands and it appears the province is happy to see this municipal confusion.

Municipalities are increasingly advocating to the province for two things that are at odds with each other. “Give municipalities more autonomy” is one message shared by Alberta’s municipalities, and “grant us more funds so that we can be autonomous” is the second message. Municipalities are not able to pick a lane, and as such they straddle the centre line hoping for the best of both worlds. The highways of Canada are littered with dead squirrels, unable to decide which lane is the safest. Municipalities would be wise to pick a lane and communicate to the minister which lane they wish to be in.

If municipal councils wish for more autonomy, municipalities can choose to raise property taxes and stop asking for provincial grant money.

If municipalities wish for more provincial grant money, these same municipalities need to stop asking for autonomy.

Municipalities need to work harder at picking the safest lane. This is near impossible when political collaboration is hard work, and role modelled by few. The province does not reward collaboration. Municipal disharmony helps the province stay in control.

For example, when the Calgary and Edmonton regional boards were formed in 2007, legislation required a total of 34 municipalities to collaborate. Legislation has since reduced the number required to collaborate to now just over 20. Municipalities continue to ask the province to be removed from these networks. The province appears happy to oblige because municipalities in conflict with each other help the province point out disharmony. Foothills and Wheatland counties appear to be the latest requesting to be removed so they do not have to collaborate. They follow many before them who traded collaboration for loneliness.

Municipalities are not able to pick a lane and the previous ministers of municipal affairs actually see this weak tactic taken by municipalities as an advantage of the province because they can avoid having to answer to a united municipal voice. The province stays in control this way.

A recent example emerged when Edmonton wanted to take control of the COVID masking mandate after the province relaxed its rules. Edmonton asked the province to continue paying for certain provisions while constantly criticizing the premier. Calgary did not collaborate with Edmonton on a united strategy and Calgary chose a different path. No collaboration between Edmonton and Calgary was welcomed by the premier.

Municipalities are divided over the policing model. Already seven of the 334 municipalities have their own police force. The province would like to see only one police force and they would like that to not be the RCMP. The municipalities, on the other hand, are pleading for more grant money to fund RCMP policing. Meanwhile municipalities are lined up outside the offices of the RCMP headquarters pleading for more and better policing. The province gets mixed messages from municipalities because municipalities cannot send unified messages the province is able to act upon. Municipalities simply do not collaborate.

Finally, municipalities advocate for community enhancement grant funding (CIP and CFEP), advocate for cellphone towers and municipal sustainability initiative (MSI) funding and simultaneously are asking to be left alone by the province.

Municipalities should pick a lane or otherwise be careful what they ask for.

Nolan Crouse is a former St. Albert mayor.