Proposed changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) show a push to bring municipalities closer together but how that will look needs some planning, according to the Town of Ponoka CAO Albert Flootman.
The actual framework is yet to be outlined, he explained in an interview.
Some of the changes almost regionalize certain services of neighbouring municipalities. Proposed changes to the MGA include provisions instructing neighbouring municipalities to have a collaboration framework, which would include land-use planning, a list of services considered on a regional basis, dispute resolution process when municipalities cannot agree, timelines for completion, authority to exempt municipalities in certain cases and other matters if needed.
“The intermunicipal collaboration framework to be discussed will be the most important part of the process to establish what will be shared and what the service levels will be,” explained Flootman.
This framework will override any municipal development plan already in place — the town updated and approved its municipal development plan in 2013 — and will govern how funding is shared and costs apportioned, explained Flootman. As there are no details to this framework, the CAO suggests initial discussions will be a time for innovation and exploration.
Expanding on the Municipal Ombudsman role
Typically the ombudsman will deal with individual concerns if residents have issues but the province is expanding its role to allow for investigations into councils.
“That office would have to grow in size to meet the needs if these changes come into effect,” said Flootman.
Despite the growth, he feels it may give residents a tool to ensure transparency. “It would enhance transparency and accountability, which is a priority for the Town of Ponoka,”
The proposed changes also allow residents an opportunity to petition the Municipal Affairs minister for an audit or inspection on matters including conduct of councillors, employees, agents and contractors of the municipality.
Ensuring balance in residential and non-residential taxes
The province proposes links to residential and non-residential tax rates and restricts a gap of five times the highest non-residential tax rate to the lowest residential tax rate. This affects 19 municipalities but Ponoka is not one of them.
“In other parts of Canada it’s very typical for commercial to be two-times residential,” said Flootman.
“In our case the non residential is 1.3 times residential.”
He added town council was clear in its goal not to increase the tax burden on residents for 2016 and the town wants to ensure a balance.
Off-site levies change to benefit fast growing communities
There is an opportunity to take advantage of off-site levies to build community buildings but it won’t help Ponoka in the short term.
This change may be of short and mid-term benefit to communities that are seeing rapid growth. Flootman said some urban communities such as Airdrie and St. Albert are seeing such a rise in population that there is a need to build a new fire hall or library or police detachment.
“A slower growing community like Ponoka is not as likely to benefit in the short and medium term,” said Flootman.
The communities facing fast-paced growth are struggling to pay for new infrastructure using existing taxpayers dollars but not from new residents coming in. This is where the proposed change moves the cost of infrastructure improvements to owners of new homes.
Municipal Affairs’ goal is to have the MGA changes approved by the next municipal election slated for fall 2017. The town will have representation at a public meeting regarding the changes in Red Deer for Thursday, June 16.