Over the past 20 years, municipal governments in Canada have been undergoing substantial restructuring, much of which flies under the radar for most Canadians until it hits close to home. In Alberta, these restructuring changes are constantly underway and changes may become more swift than in the past. The impacts are important to understand.
In Ontario for example, in 2000, under the Savings and Restructuring Act, the number of Ontario municipalities was reduced from 850 to 444. In Manitoba, the number of municipalities in the province has been reduced from 197 to 137 since 2016, triggered by direction from the provincial government. Prince Edward Island is currently in the midst of a review of its local government approach, some changes of which have already been implemented.
In Alberta, with the 2019 dissolution of the town of Grande Cache plus the 2020 dissolutions of the villages of Ferintosh, Granum and Gadsby, the number of incorporated towns and villages has disappeared at a rate of more than one per year over the past 20 years. In 2020, that trend will surely continue and the frequency of these dissolutions may even increase. With five more viability reviews currently underway in Alberta (town of Manning plus the villages of Bawlf, Cereal, Dewberry and Wabamun under review), there may be more dissolutions on the horizon and there are important reasons why.
First, these towns and villages are no longer attracting adequate investment; the increased farm size has impacted farmers’ support of local commerce plus small urban tax rates are usually significantly higher than those of their rural neighbours. And now, Alberta provincial financial support of municipalities is declining in ways that affect different sizes of municipalities differently. Downloading by the province of services and costs onto municipalities is regularly occurring plus the reduction (and possible full elimination) of Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding is impacting the smaller urban municipalities at a disproportionate rate compared to cities and counties.
Additionally, regional government entities such as the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board and the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board are becoming more influential on regional services and public policy. Also, counties such as Wood Buffalo, Rocky View County and Strathcona County have demonstrated added strength through their diversity and are in fact structured like regions unto themselves.
According to the Municipal Affairs website, Alberta currently has 262 urban municipalities including 19 cities, 107 towns, 85 villages and 51 summer villages. There are additionally 96 communities that previously held some form of urban municipality status which no longer do. These include a former summer village, 78 former villages, two former cities and 15 former towns. These communities no longer operate as independent urban municipalities due to amalgamation, annexation or dissolution. As the data indicates, the number of towns and villages are declining and this restructuring is continuing to giving rise to the notion of further amalgamations throughout Alberta. In 2007, the Town of Lac La Biche and Lakeland County amalgamated. In 2019, Flagstaff County, together with seven towns and villages within its boundaries, completed an amalgamation study and now the structure of that region’s future is uncertain.
Alberta taxpayers and our elected officials have much to learn from many governance and financial models that exist across Canada, and indeed across North America. While bigger is not always better, there is no doubt that the viability as self-sustainable entities of each the smallest 100 urbans in Alberta is in peril.
Nolan Crouse is a former St. Albert mayor.