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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.

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