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Monday 23 September 2013

Municipal Election Thoughts Pt 2.

My original plan was to write a few posts about some of the issues facing municipal councils in NL. It turns out that I'll only end up writing two, this being the second. The topic of this post has changed from my original intent to something a little more in the media over the last week or so. CBC ran a story here on Sept 17th regarding some of the discrepancies between municipalities and other communities, and then followed it up on the 19th with one here on how the Province "isn't ready" to tackle the structural issues of unincorporated communities. In light of those stories and a conversation I almost had on VOCM's Nightline I thought I'd share my thoughts on the issue, and while it won't change any ones vote come Tuesday I hope those who read this will leave with a better understanding of our broken municipal sector.

Structural Integrity 
The current system has 4 distinct types of community.

  1. The City. We currently have 3 cities and they are regulated slightly differently then other communities as they have unique legislation. 
  2. The Municipality. There are approximately 276 municipalities in NL. They are governed by the Municipalities Act, among some others, and are monitored by the Province to ensure they are operating within the rules. 
  3. Local Service Districts. Last time I was involved in the sector there were somewhere areound 180 LSD's in NL. They are generally run by a committee and can provide basic services like garbage collection for a fee from residents. They cannot charge a tax but can charge fees. I believe there are a couple that also own and operate water systems. 
  4. Unincorperated Communities. Hard to say just how many since there's no real definition as to what consitutes a "community." They also usually have fee for service arrangements for garbage collection at least. 

For the purposes of this discussion it makes sense to group these into 2 main groups which I will call municipalities that will include all towns and cities, and unincorporated communities that will include LSD's and completely unincorporated communities. Note also that there was a 5th kind of structure referred to as a regional municipality made up of a mix of these options, but the only one in NL was dissolved to create the municipality of Fogo Island not too long ago.

So why does it matter? Who cares if there are different types of representation or community structure? It matters because it sets up a significant imbalance in the system that is usually tips the scales against municipalities. To illustrate the point we'll look at two items; property tax and snow clearing.
First we'll look at property tax and how the imbalance across the community types causes an unfair advantage for unincorporated areas and a loss in potential revenue to be used for community development. Around NL it is common to have municipalities and unincorporated communities side by side. When businesses and individuals look to build new buildings they often look outside the municipality so they can avoid business and property tax. This causes a loss of potential revenue for municipalities and even provides a slight business advantage to those who operate in unincorporated areas. In addition these businesses and people will often use services in nearby municipalities such as banking, retail and government services that use resources of that municipality. Therefore people are appreciating the benefits of being near a municipality but are not contributing to the operation of that system.

On the side of expenses we need to look no further then the roads that we drive on everyday. During the winter months all municipalities have to budget thousands of dollars just to keep the roads passable. Snow clearing forms a large percentage of the expenses for many small towns who don't provide many other services. What's the big deal? Well, neighbouring unincorporated communities need not worry because the Provincial Government takes care of it at no cost. How? By using Dept. of Transportation equipment or by throwing a little cash at a neighboring municipality to use their equipment to do the job. That sounds fair right?

What does it all mean? On a small scale it leaves municipalities and those who pay municipal taxes feeling that they are paying a little more then their fair share as they pay municipal taxes in addition to the provincial and federal taxes just like all others. On a larger scale it highlights the disparity and disfunctionality within our municipal sector. It certainly isn't necessary or practical for all areas of the Province to have the same service levels but shouldn't we be working toward a basic standard that can apply to all? At least we should have a system that applies the same cost for the same service to all on an equal basis?

Our municipal structure needs an overhaul. It's needed one for decades but as usual it requires significant political will that has so far been missing from the equation. And until we have all parts of the equation on the table we have very little hope of reaching equality.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Municipal Election Thoughts. Part 1

With the province wide municipal elections coming up in just over 2 weeks perhaps it's time to have a quick look at the general state of our municipal sector. Of course this time around I'm also a candidate for my town of Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove, and you can check out my campaign website at  If you want a detailed look at the sector, have a look back at a 4 part series I wrote in 2011 starting with Part 1. Over the next couple of weeks I'll provide my current thoughts on the sector and highlight the areas we really need to work on. In this first instalment I'll cover municipal financing and citizen engagement.

Cash Flow
Those involved in the sector are well aware of the financial realities of running a town on very limited resources and increasing responsibilities. It's a sign of the health of the sector that most towns would have to close their doors if they stopped receiving the Municipal Operating Grants from the Province. Then there's the infrastructure that they have even less control over. Each year municipalities put forward applications for desperately needed infrastructure development and maintenance in hopes that they might get chosen from the random and largely politicised infrastructure lottery.

So we have a level of government with seriously insufficient funding and secretive, sketchy and politicised access to infrastructure funding. How do we fix it? Well, the Province has promised a proper fiscal framework review for many years, and there is one ongoing right now but the outcome is likely to simply be a rejig of the MOG formula. Municipalities need proper enabling legislation, more diverse revenue generation tools and a multi-year public and prioritised infrastructure plan from the Province so that they can plan appropriately without having to cross their fingers and hope that their project will get approved.

Citizen Engagement
This topic is a tough one because some towns do their utmost to engage residents, while others treat residents as an unfortunate side effect of having a council. Most towns are in the middle somewhere. This problem stems from the fact that neither the Province nor many councils or councillors understand what municipalities are for, nor what they are capable of. Because of this many towns don't try to engage residents because they wouldn't know what to do with them even if they were engaged in the process.

The most recent unfortunate example of this I've seen is with my own town of Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove where I expressed concern to the council that our residents might not get the opportunity to meet all the candidates. I suggested a simple meet and greet for all candidates to make sure no resident could say they weren't given the opportunity to know who they were voting for. Unfortunately the response from the Town was that the majority of the current council had no interest in holding such an event. This is a problem.

While Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador and the Professional Municipal Administrators association are always holding training sessions that often emphasise the importance of resident engagement many councils still don't quite get it. It is the backbone of our democratic system, and engaging citizens once every 4 years is just not good enough.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Up and Running

September the 24th will be here before we know it. And that's a big deal because it's municipal election day in Newfoundland and Labrador. So wherever you live be sure and get out and vote!

If you happen to live in, or know someone who lives in the great town of Logy Bay-Middle Cove Outer Cove then you may know that I'm running for that council, and you should check out my campaign website at

My campaign is simple and based on my years of experience in the municipal sector, and in areas of community development and strategic planning.

Unfortunately I've just today received some disheartening news regarding the election in my Town. All candidates have been invited to an event in the City if St. John's hosted by the Board of Trade. A meet and greet, of sorts, that was open to all candidates from surrounding municipalities. It's a great idea and I appreciate the invitation, but I'm not sure many residents of LB-MC-OC will attend.

As such I made a request to my town to host a similar, simple "meet and greet" style event. My response came today from the town office:
"Just ran this by council last night. Unfortunately, no one was in favor of hosting an event at this time."
We only get to choose a council once every 4 years, and I find it unfortunate that this council doesn't appear interested in providing one event where residents can come together to meet the people who want to make important decisions on their behalf.

In the beginning I wanted to volunteer my experience to help make good decisions for our town. Now it seems, I will also be running to ensure that people have every opportunity to become involved and engaged in the municipal process.