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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.  

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