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Monday 28 November 2011

The Big Land Dance

Today's Telegram gives a Cheers to Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson for actually visiting Labrador and seeing the Trans-Labrador Highway in person. Well with all respect to their editorial team my standards are a little higher.

I have had the incredible pleasure of living in Labrador West and the pleasure of traveling to most of the communities in Labrador, and the displeasure of driving on almost all the major roads in Labrador. I have yet to drive the new stretch from Cartwright to HVGB but it's on my to-do list. One of the things that I have learned during my time living and traveling in the Big Land is that every complaint that Newfoundland has about Ottawa, Labrador has about St. John's tenfold. And they are generally legitimate complaints.

Where are you again?
While in Labrador City I remember a friend receiving a fax from a Govt office in St. John's that was obviously intended for HVGB. When my friend called to report the mistake the person in St. John's apologized for the error and asked if he could drop it over to HVGB for them instead of sending another fax. Little did the ignoramus realize that there is a 7 hour drive over horrid gravel road between Labrador City and HVGB. It would be like someone in Ottawa asking someone in St. John's to run something over to Halifax for them. That would surely go over well right?    

Our Island Province
You know how Canada doesn't end at Halifax? Well NL is not an island province. Despite how often people keep saying it. Labrador is often left off the name of the province, left off of, or reduced on maps, and generally forgotten or thought of as though it were just another peninsula. It isn't. You can drive from St. Anthony to St. John's in a day. Try that from Nain.

While I was living in Wabush I was surprised by the close relationship between Lab West and the community of Fermont, just across the boarder in Quebec. As a matter of fact there were many who said they felt they had much more in common with Quebec then the Island of Newfoundland. And if you ever want to see the difference between how provincial governments approach their service delivery you should take a trip to Lab West in the winter and then drive over to Fermont. Trust me when I tell you you don't need any signage to tell you when you cross into Quebec. It's very obvious by the disappearance of ice from the road. Oh and they also still paint the lines on small patches of road in the middle of nowhere. Why? Because some people still use the road, and it's their responsibility to maintain it!

On the Road Again
If there were hundreds of kilometers of unpaved roads that carried thousands of people and millions of dollars of product on the Island portion of Newfoundland there would be a riot. If it were near St. John's it would simply never happen. Despite attempts at pilot programs of chip-seal in a couple of locations there is still no hardtop on the Trans-Labrador Highway. Well except for winter when the surface of the highway is literally ice. Not snow, or a mix of snow and gravel. It's just a solid layer of ice.

A typical section of the Trans-Labrador Highway in winter.

But there is some pavement...
In the area of the Labrador Straits there is pavement from the Quebec boarder up as far as Red Bay. The road is in such a state of disrepair that the complaints of residents of unsafe roads was met not with road repairs but a reduced speed limit.

For such an important part of our province Labrador is treated as a colony of Newfoundland. It has always been treated that way and it looks like it isn't about to change anytime soon. When people speak up and complain loud enough so that St. John's can hear they send up a minister, some senior staff and they all to the Big Land Dance. You know that old song and dance of publicly recognizing the "importance" and "uniqueness" of the issues in Labrador, but yet refusing to do anything about it due to the scale and the lack of funding. It's an old routine and we've seen it too many times. A quick visit to see the frozen highway by Minister Hedderson just isn't good enough for the people of Labrador, and The Telegram might want to consider switching that "Cheers" to a "Jeers."

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Grade of B Doesn't Hold Water.

If you're a regular reader here then you will know how I feel about the state of the drinking water systems in NL. In case you don't know I've written about it a couple of times, so have a look at this, and these two here and here. But today there's good news! As it turns out our drinking water supply is in good hands, and as a province we get an overall grade of B! Well, now I feel so much better! A group called Ecojustice has completed a 3rd report card on drinking water for all provinces and territories across the country. The report, titled Waterproof 3, is available in full here.

The Telegram has a story on the front page today with quotes from the Environment Minister Terry French,  who is just tickled pink with the report: "I'm just delighted we've come from a D to a B. It's not lost on Government, the importance of having clean drinking water, and we're going to continue to invest and work with the communities so we can get to where we need to be."

Have I been remiss in my past critiques of our drinking water systems?

Before I take back all my previous criticisms that I've learned from people who live and deal with these water issues every day, why don't we have a detailed look at the report and see just how we managed to get a grade of B with so many ongoing boil orders.

Report Quote #1:
In other jurisdictions, consultation is not mandatory, but may be required on a case-by-case basis: 
• In Newfoundland and Labrador consultation opportunities will be determined by locally-based planning committees.
Locally based planning committees...yeah... There does indeed exist the possibility of establishing watershed protection committees but like many things a lack of mandatory regulations mean that in practical terms these committees are few and far between.

Regarding watershed plan reviews...
Report Quote #2:
Newfoundland and Labrador does not formally require updating but sets a target date of every five years.
So those critical watershed plans set a target date five years for review but are not mandatory. I'm sensing a trend...

Report Quote #3:
In Newfoundland and Labrador, where water system operators are not required to test for microbiological contamination, the province operates a sampling program.
So is a sampling program appropriate to replace microbiological contamination testing? Seems like something we should be required to test for doesn't it?

Report Quote #4:
This year, only Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories lack operator certification programs.
On this point the Minister of Environment is clear. The Telegram article reports that he indicated that we certainly do have a certification program! But it's not mandatory. And the trend continues.

Report Quote #5:
This year we find that Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan require the reporting of water quality results to residents or the posting of the information online.
This is a positive note but it doesn't tell the whole story. Many households don't have internet access and the reporting of results usually means a sheet of paper posted at the town hall. Not exactly broad reaching reporting.

On Transparency and accountability in NL
Report Quote #6:
There is no requirement for individual systems to provide public reporting. The provincial government does not produce an annual report regarding drinking water quality trends or testing results. According to the Department of Environment, the contracts for water systems require operators to maintain contingency plans and to notify the Department when emergencies occur.
So, no required public reporting (note the apparent contradiction to the last quote), no annual report on quality or test results and the (possibly uncertified) system operators have to notify the Dept. in case of emergency. Well now I feel safe.

Those are but 6 examples pulled from the report that indicate that what we have is a system that has very few mandatory regulations. There may be good policies in place but they are largely voluntary or suggested and certainly not required.

Page 9 of the Report has the following list.
The key elements of a comprehensive multi-barrier approach include:
• the protection of water sources to keep raw water as clean as possible;
• adequate treatment including disinfection and additional processes to remove or inactivate contaminants;
• well-maintained distribution systems;
• strong water quality standards;
• rigorous enforcement including regular inspection, testing, monitoring;
• proper operator training and certification;
• public notice, reporting, and involvement;
• contingency planning;
• ongoing research; and
• adequate funding for all elements.
If those are the 10 key elements, how do we fare based on the reality of drinking water systems in NL?
  1. We do have watershed protection regulations: Pass
  2. Treatment? Check the list of Boil orders: Fail
  3. Practically no preventative maintenance: Fail
  4. Water quality standards are reasonable: Pass
  5. Enforcement doesn't exist: Fail X 10
  6. Operator Training. Improving but not mandatory: Marginal Fail
  7. Reporting is sub-par: Fail
  8. Contingency planning: Marginal Pass
  9. Research? If it is happening it is not being passed to municipalities: Fail
  10. Funding is severely inadequate!: Fail
In the end when you look at the grade of B, and the details of the report and attempt to balance it with the reality of the drinking water systems and boil water orders in NL, something is amiss. There is a scary and dangerous lack of mandatory regulations around drinking water safety in NL and we don't deserve a B, we deserve an F.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 4 (This is the last one. I promise.)

Up to this point this short series on the municipal sector has been focused on the issues or challenges currently being faced by municipalities. It is now time to turn the attention to some solutions. Before we do that lets be clear that Parts 12 & 3 of this series are in no way a comprehensive analysis of all the issues in the sector, far from it. The past 3 posts have been presented to begin the discussion surrounding some of the major factors that are preventing towns from becoming truly sustainable communities. There are a long list of other issues that we not mentioned in any detail. Things like:
  • The limited number of engineering, construction and planning firms in NL. While it's not a monopoly it does influence competitive bidding for tenders.
  • An under resourced and misguided Department of Municipal Affairs. Besides the infrastructure money, the department has very little resources, or staff, and some of the senior people in the Dept. have very little "real world" knowledge of the towns that they are suppose to assist.
  • Inequality between types of local governments. Towns, local service districts and cities all have some different rules, rights and responsibilities. The province also treats some towns differently with regard to road ownership and snow clearing responsibilities.
  • Emergency services. Availability of service, volunteers, equipment and the often strained relationship between fire departments and councils.
  • The lack of a Federal-Municipal relationship. Municipalities are creations of their respective provinces, and as such they have no official constitutional relationship with the Federal Government. That's why any federal cash intended for municipalities passes through the Provincial Government first.   
But enough about the problems, it's time for some change in the municipal sector and here are a few ideas that could help it get to the place where local governments are strong, healthy and accountable. 

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
If we're going to refit the system then we have to begin with the big question of municipal financing. If you really want to know more about the situation around municipal financing the go read the recent report on Municipal Fiscal Sustainability prepared by Dr. Wade Locke on behalf of MNL. Be warned that the full report is just over 500 pages. If we accept the idea that the current system of municipal financing is inadequate then we must come up with a solution that takes a new direction beyond the current Municipal Operating Grants (MOGs).  And beyond the dollars themselves is the need for a sustainable financial system that allows for long term stability and minimizes Provincial Government influence.

Dr. Locke's report examines the potential benefits of implementing a 1% increase to personal income tax or a 1% increase to sales tax (HST) to supplement the existing municipal revenue streams. He also recognizes that even those increases might still leave some smaller municipalities without sufficient revenue, and he discuses the idea of a municipal equalization program to redistribute some of the available funding. The impacts of either of these two tax increases would be an increase in municipal revenue of between 10% and 25%, with the income tax increase providing an average increase of 20% across the province.

Whether or not you agree with an increase in your income tax you have to realize that you may be choosing between an increase in income tax, an increase in property tax or a cut in your basic services. What's it gonna be? 

A Solid Foundation
As you know by now even if we fix the finances there are still foundational and structural issues that need to be addressed. I would actually argue that the structural issues are damaging the sector even more then the lack of resources but it garners far less discussion. The only restructuring idea that ever seems to get much attention, and certainly the only one that gets any action by Municipal Affairs, is that of amalgamation. There's no doubt that we have too many local governments, and far too much inequality across the system but amalgamation can't fix all the problems. But it can be a part of the solution.

What is really needed in NL is a similar process that was started in New Brunswick in 2008. Building Stronger Local Governments and Regions was a report prepared to provide a plan to reform the municipal system in New Brunswick, and we could learn a great deal from it. First there's the process of having an in-depth review of the entire system, and then there's the recommendations that they proposed. The report proposes some revolutionary ideas like "...all residents be represented and governed by elected municipal councils..." The report makes 97 recommendations and only a small hand full are directly relevant to NL, but it points in the direction of setting up regional service bodies in conjunction with restructured municipal entities. One of the basic ideas is that there should be local representation but larger administrative areas all across the province. While many people have offhandedly proposed the idea of counties for NL we need a complete sector review to determine what would actually suit our specific geography and population distribution. One thing is certain, regional government will have to be part of the answer.    

Strong and Accountable
Municipalities are the first level of government. Not the third level, the first. They are closest to the people they serve and they provide the majority of services that impact people every day. Yet they don't have the authority to really make the changes that need to be made to make our communities better. Government does not trust them enough to give them that level of responsibility. That's not an opinion, it's a fact. The Municipalities Act is just one example of that lack of trust. Councils are an elected level of government and they deserve the respect and authority to do their jobs. We need legislation that allows councils to be creative and make the important decisions that need to be made.

Spider-Man's uncle Ben said that "With great power comes great responsibility" and that certainly applies to all levels of government as well as to superheroes. While councils need more authority they also need to be more accountable for everything that they do. They need standards that must be met around training, financial auditing, service delivery, and planning, just to name a few possible benchmarks. One of the common complaints from the general public is with regard to accountability in the sector and while most of the discontent is based on a lack of understanding some it is based in legitimate concern.

Increase in Understanding
If you ever wondered how most folks feel about municipalities and their finances just take a quick pop over to the comments section for this VOCM Question of the day. It is unfortunately typical of the common misunderstanding of the sector. The blame for this misunderstanding can be shared by everyone involved and it will equally take all partners working together to get the message out. The only time Municipal Affairs says anything positive about the sector is leading up to the municipal elections and on Municipal Awareness Day, which I'm guessing most people have never heard of. Municipal Affairs should be a high priority portfolio with a Minister who understands the issues and is working with all partners to make it better! There has to be a process of education and engagement that keeps residents informed and involved. The only way to build a sustainable healthy community is with the participation of residents, businesses and volunteer groups, and that only happens when people feel that their ideas and contributions are valued.  

Where do we go from here and Who leads the way?
If you happened to be involved in the Municipal sector in NL the you will not have been surprised by anything you've read here. It's not revolutionary and it's not new. As a matter of fact for the last 5 years (that I've been part of) these conversations have been had in many meetings and over a great many drinks all across NL. So if the problems are known and the solutions, or at least a general idea of what the solutions might be, are not complicated, why has nothing been done? As with many sectors in NL it's the Government that drives change, or as in this case doesn't drive change. The Government of NL and the Department of Municipal Affairs has very little interest in improving the sector.

Help us MNL you're our only hope! 
Because Municipal Affairs has not stepped up to lead the sector Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) has taken the lead on every major front in the sector. There's the Regional Government Initiative, the beginnings of a Municipal Benchmarking process, training through the annual symposium and other events, attempts at public engagement through its website, news paper, and regular partnerships with The Harris Centre and various research projects with MUN professors. The most recent example of spurring public debate is with the release of Dr. Locke's report dealing with the municipal fiscal framework, something the the current Government has been ignoring for years. Unfortunately MNL is a member based organization that should be representing it's members and partnering with Municipal Affairs but they shouldn't be leading the sector all by themselves.

In the end we can hope that all partners, including Municipal Affairs will begin to realize that the status quo will just see a broken system continue on a path that will see more and more small communities fail in their attempt to provide basic services. Instead of watching our communities die a slow death on palliative care, we really need leadership, vision, and action to build healthy and sustainable communities of the future. Mr. O'Brien, you now have the opportunity to make things better, time to step up to the plate.  

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 3

If you haven't been following along I'd suggest you have a look at Municipal Refit. Part 1, and Part 2 before you continue here. If you're still awake after all that then it's time to look at two more aspects of the municipal sector. In Part 3 we'll be examining the fiscal framework that municipalities operate with, and the structure of the system that they exist within. It's a little long so brace yourself!

Follow the Money
In Part 2 we briefly discussed the situation with municipal infrastructure funding. It's a case by case application based process. So that covers the "capital works" side of things but what if the town doesn't get approved for a project, or what about everything else that municipalities need money for? What about recreation, fire protection, snow clearing, planning, general operations etc? The truth is that the revenue generation opportunities for municipalities are very limited. For the sake of clarity and time we will have a look at three avenues municipalities currently utilize to generate operational revenue.

1. Taxes and Fees.
The most well know to the average resident is the small selection of taxes and fees that a municipality can develop and enforce. The most common is the property tax, where property owners pay an annual tax based on the assessed value of their property. This tax has a residential component for homes and a commercial component for business properties. Property tax is often referred to as a regressive tax because there is a penalty for improving your property even though you don't use any more municipal services. The value of your home increases and your taxes increase automatically. Neither residents nor councillors generally like the property tax. Property tax usually makes up the majority of revenue but there are other smaller taxation options. There's the poll tax, which is essentially a head tax, or a tax for just living, or working in a town. I've seen them range from $50 to $300. There are also a couple types of business tax but outside of the major centers this tax doesn't have the ability to generate much revenue because businesses are so few. Then there are a few other fees and taxes that municipalities collect raging from large fees like water and sewer, to smaller ones like permits and garbage collection. The problem is that in most smaller communities, and the majority of municipalities are smaller, is that there is very little in terms of a business or population base to make these fees and taxes worthwhile.

2. Municipal Operating Grants (MOG)
The Government of NL has long recognized that municipalities are underfunded and have limited means to generate revenue. As such the Province issues an annual grant called the Municipal Operating Grant or MOG to each municipality based on an unnecessarily complicated formula to help compensate for the financial shortfall. To provide some idea of the level of assistance a town of 600 people would receive approximately $18,000 per year based on the current formula. Unfortunately despite increases in regulatory and reporting requirements and rising costs, successive Provincial Governments have been reducing the amount allocated to municipalities. Part of the problem is that this funding is determined at the whim of the current sitting government, whomever it might be.

3. Special Grants
Every year there are special grants announced by various Provincial and Federal Departments allocated for very specific purposes and open to proposals from not for profits and community groups. These can cover areas of general community development, recreation grants, wellness grants, etc. For some municipalities this is an opportunity to access additional funding to accomplish very specific tasks. There are two potential issues with these pots of money. First is that they are generally application and proposal based, so it requires a significant investment of time to complete and sometimes monitor a project. Second is that towns often find themselves trying to find or create a project that fits the criteria of a given program just to get access to the funding, instead of finding funding to meet the actual needs of the community.

Structural Un-integrity
There is little doubt that the municipal system is facing a raft of issues, but unfortunately the deeper you dig the worse it gets. At the core of the sector is a structure that was developed for a time and a situation that no longer exists. Prior to confederation NL had very few municipalities but a great many communities.  Following confederation the new Provincial Government had some money to invest in communities but they needed an entity or formal body to legitimately administer the local spending. As such there was a push to establish municipalities to fulfill that function. In short the structural issues are as follows:

1. Too many ineffective Local Governments.
Today we have 276 municipalities, 175(approximately) Local Service Districts (LSDs), and hundreds of unincorporated communities with no official organization or representation. All this for a population of 500,000.

2. Out of Date Legislation.
The Municipalities Act(1999) is prescriptive legislation. This means that towns can only do things that are specifically listed in the act. If it isn't covered in the act municipalities can't do it. This effectively ties that hands of community leaders who want to think outside the box and try anything new. The best example of this with regard to economic development. Because it wasn't part of the Act until 1999, any municipality that was engaged in economic development was technically breaking the law up to the rewrite in 1999.

3. Lack of accountability.
Despite the prescriptive nature of the legislation there is very little accountability built into the system, either from a voter perspective or from the perspective of the Department of Municipal Affairs. There was a time in the past when Municipal Affairs Analysts would do spot checks on municipalities to ensure rules were being followed but over the last 10 years Municipal Affairs has significantly reduced the amount of monitoring and accountability.

4. Organizational confusion.
Who does economic development in your area? The town, The Regional Economic Development Board, the Rural Development Association, the Chamber of commerce, or the Tourism development agency? The answer is that it can be all of them, yet it is the municipality that usually owns the public infrastructure that local tourism depends upon. The unfortunate part is that each group is usually very busy working on its mandate so not enough cooperation happens and decisions get made that can actually work against one of the other groups. And that's just economic development. Where do groups like the Rotary, the Lions, Unions, churches, recreation committees and the like fit in.

5. No recognition of regional realities.
Our communities were build on the idea of autonomy. Each community was often capable of surviving on its own for long periods of time. That time has passed. With the changes in rural populations communities are forced to come to grips with the reality that we need to address issues on a more regional basis. This does not necessarily mean amalgamation (but it could) but what it means is that there are better ways of addressing larger scale problems.

If you've read the past 3 articles you will now have some level of understanding of the issues in the municipal sector. It isn't a simple problem with simple solutions. It's a systemic problem that will require a multifaceted approach that will address the broad scope of issues. Stay tuned to Municipal Refit. Part 4 where I'll identify some of the possible solutions that can be implemented with minimal cost to start us back on track toward building sustainable communities in NL.

Monday 7 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 2

Fresh off the heals of the Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) Annual Convention in Corner Brook we continue the discussion on the municipal sector and why it is misunderstood and in need of serious attention. In Municipal Refit. Part 1 we covered the basic ideas surrounding the level of  ignorance of the average resident when it comes to what municipal councils are responsible for, the lack of appropriate training for councillors, the issue of administrative capacity (average of 1 staff person per town), and the shortfall in the area of all aspects of municipal planning. In Part 2 we will look to the situation in municipal infrastructure and the potential implications for things like drinking water and sewage treatment.

What the Heck is Infrastructure Anyway?
In basic terms infrastructure includes the physical assets that support the community. Things like roads, water and sewer systems, buildings and recreation facilities. Most people appreciate that infrastructure is very expensive to build and maintain but they don't understand where the money comes from of how it gets invested into a local water system or road. Because the cost of major projects regularly run into the millions of dollars and the average municipality has an annual budget of around five to eight hundred thousand dollars the money has to come from another source. In NL the vast majority of money comes through a cost sharing program developed by the Provincial Government of NL. The Province combines Federal and Provincial dollars to create a pot of infrastructure money that then gets allocated to municipal projects on a case by case basis. There is a ratio that determines how much of a project is funded by the municipality and how much is funded by the infrastructure program based on the population of the municipality. From the Municipal Affairs Website:
Eligible funding is allocated based on the following ratios:
  • 90/10 for populations less than 3,000 (258 municipalities, 31 per cent of provincial population)
  • 80/20 for populations between 3,000 and 7,000 (16 municipalities, 14 per cent of provincial population)
  • 70/30 for populations greater than 7,000 (9 municipalities, 43 per cent of provincial population)
  • Local Service Districts in the province would also qualify for funding supports on approved projects
While only having to pay 10% of a project is a great deal, if that project costs $10 million then your portion is still one million dollars. So where do you get that kind of money when you have a population of 500 people, few businesses and an annual budget already stretched to the limit at $500,000 per year? The answer is that you borrow it. Adding debt payments to your budget is never fun but is often the last resort available.

In one end...
The cost of collecting, treating and then delivering safe drinking water to residents is no cheap or easy task. It requires a chlorination and treatment building, a collection area (possibly a dam), and miles and miles of various sizes of pipe to every single building in the town. The costs of these systems are incredibly high, usually in the tens of millions of dollars. So if you run a town and you determine you need a drinking water system you calculate your portion of the project and you redesign your budget to include the payments on the loan for your 10%. The project is complete, likely over budget, and your residents have safe drinking water. Maybe. Now begins the lifetime struggle of ensuring the system remains safe. Because many of our municipal water supplies begin in a pond we have many systems with very high levels of silt and even mud in the drinking water. Then there's the organic matter that has to be treated with hundreds of liters of chlorine. Assuming you do get a good quality drinking water you will soon find that no matter how good a system is designed, it will eventually break. Very few municipalities in NL have any kind of preventative maintenance program in place. The general approach is to fix it when it breaks. Unfortunately that leads to systems in very poor condition and incredibly costly repairs that are often out of reach and never budgeted for.

If you're wondering what all of that means for the average household then you should have a look at this, and these two here and here. At the end of the day drinking water is one of the most important services a municipality provides. And if you have travelled around NL you will know all too well the number of boil orders in place, and the number of systems that produce "safe" drinking water that I wouldn't give to a dog. So who is at fault here? It's all about the purse strings.    

The situation is bad enough that I have heard it surmised that we have already had sickness and possibly even deaths that were attributable to unsafe drinking water. Old aunt Jenny may very well have had her condition made worse by the quality of her drinking water but because she was 83 and had high blood pressure, diabetes, and a sting of other issues it was never considered that her health was damaged by her drinking water. Not that far fetched is it?

...and out the other.
So now that you have some understanding of the drinking water infrastructure you need to know a little  about the wastewater situation. Don't get confused by the term "wastewater" it simply means sewage and all other liquid waste that leaves your home and all businesses. In NL our traditional approach is to have no treatment. All we do is pump it into the ocean, untreated. In the entire province there is a very small percentage of municipalities who have any level of wastewater treatment. Why? Because it costs so much. Remember the St. John's sewage treatment plant? Original budget of $93 million jumped to about $150 million. It's not cheap. The problem is that there are new regulations coming from Environment Canada that will require a high level of sewage treatment for all liquid that enters the ocean. Depending on the timeline and the investment provided by the federal government this could be a huge issue for NL. We don't have the money for proper and safe drinking water, so how can we come up with the investment for wastewater treatment? And how much will it cost? The estimates are currently in the range of 2 to 3 billion to upgrade the systems in NL over a 30 year time period. We just don't have the cash.

Up next in Municipal Refit. Part 3 we'll look at the fiscal framework and the structural issues in the sector...

Friday 4 November 2011

Municipal Refit. Part 1

Can you name your municipal councillors? Better yet do you even know if you have a municipal council? Maybe you have a Local Service District committee, or you may not have any form of local community government at all. I would be willing to lay a significant wager that 80% of people in the province can't answer those questions. Unfortunately the misunderstanding of the local government sector in NL extends far beyond the basic structure and participants. Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) is currently holding its annual convention so I thought it might be nice to delve into the municipal sector for a quick view into a complex and fragile system that many of us rely upon for basic services.

What does a councillor do anyway?
Being a councillor in NL can be a very different experience depending on what council you serve on. Some councillors are very dedicated and they spend incredible amounts of time and effort attempting to make their community a better place to live. Unfortunately many people don't see that side of the system. All some people see is that the road isn't plowed, the garbage truck is late, municipal taxes keep going up and my water isn't fit to drink. Councillors are responsible for those things, but the responsibilities don't end there. They can also be responsible for economic development, strategic and land use planning, recreation, community infrastructure, supporting volunteer groups, community pride and cohesiveness, as well as youth and senior community programs. Some councillors or mayors even actually maintain the drinking water or sewer system. And just like any group of people there are those who are dedicated to serving the community, and there are those who are seat fillers.

Lifelong Learning
With a significant list of responsibilities for municipal councillors, it would be obvious to assume that there is significant training available and even required. Not exactly. There are various training opportunities through MNL, PMA (Professional Municipal Administrators) and through an entity called the Municipal Training and Development Corporation or MTDC. So what's the problem? For starters none of the training is mandatory. None. This means that there are councillors in NL who are making decisions around significant budgets, infrastructure, planning, and possibly water systems without one minute of training. Other provinces have mandatory new councillor training and Nova Scotia holds a two day orientation for newly elected councillors. Here in NL the Department of Municipal affairs provides an hour and a half of training at the MNL convention just following the general municipal election for those who feel like going. If you don't feel like going then you miss out on training regarding municipal legislation, basic decision making, municipal responsibilities, budgeting, and conflict of interest regulations. In addition the MTDC doesn't actually develop or provide training, but instead provides a financial assistance program to help cover travel costs to these non-mandatory training sessions.

But isn't that your responsibility?
Just like many businesses, it is the frontline staff that often keep the lights on and the wheels turning, and in the municipal sector there is no doubt that the whole system would grind to a screeching halt were it not for the municipal administrators. But lets bring a little perspective to the table. If we pull out the top 10 municipalities by population, how many permanent staff would you guess the average municipality has? 4? 2? No. Municipalities with a population under 5000 have an average of 1 full time permanent staff person. 1. That one person is responsible to administer all the business of the council. This includes running the office, budgeting, actioning council directions, collection taxes, ensuring services are delivered and lets not forget; dealing with resident complaints. And again training is minimal and largely not mandatory. And because of the lack of capacity there are municipalities where the one staff person administers council business, picks up the garbage, plows the road and fixes the sewer breaks. It's no part time job.

Planning to Fail
At least there are specific planning requirements to keep us all on the straight and narrow right? Not even close. When it comes to financial planning municipalities are required to submit their annual budget before December 31 for the following year. Not exactly long term planning. The other point regarding finances is that the only requirement for municipal budgets is that they balance on paper. The results at the end of the year often look very little like the budget submitted 12 months prior. Then there's general strategic planning. You know the kind. All organizations are required to have them and they usually include mission statements and goals and actions and that kind of thing. Municipalities are required to have an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan (ICSP) but only as of last year and only because it was a requirement for a federal funding program. Unfortunately the ICSPs were largely treated as a box to check and not a serious opportunity to plan for the future. Finally we have Land Use Plans, the ones that delineate residential and commercial zones, and development regulations. These plans must be developed and modified by professional certified planners and approved by Municipal Affairs. So are they mandatory? No. Do many towns actually have them? About half. Do many municipalities have certified planners on staff to work on these plans? Only 6 or 7 municipalities in the entire province have a planner on staff.

So we have councillors and staff who are trying their best but likely not appropriately trained in a sector that is largely misunderstood by the majority of residents, and suffers from insufficient planning on most fronts. What about the fiscal framework that they operate in, the infrastructure situation, the ongoing boil order issues or the issue of the municipal structure in NL? Stay tuned to Municipal Refit. Part 2