When neighbours aren’t getting along, talk of municipal amalgamation comes up

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

With talk of municipal amalgamation surfacing during the recent municipal elections, it seems a good time to ask some questions about it – just in case.
Just in case what? Just in case the Town of Slave Lake and M.D. of Lesser Slave River can’t settle their differences by other means. Disputes between urban and rural jurisdictions are common enough, and often revolve around the issue of who pays how much for urban recreational facilities. Fire and rescue services are also often in the mix, although they seem easier to settle. There may be others, but these are the biggies. Related to these, and feeding into them, is the issue of imbalance of revenue; the rurals often have more of it.
Amalgamation can work, says municipal government consultant (and former Spruce Grove mayor) George Cuff, “when there is a genuine agreement that this is the way to go.”
When it doesn’t work, he continues, “is when the table is unbalanced, and one side doesn’t see any advantage.”
On the other hand, an ‘unbalanced table,’ is what often leads to talk of municipal amalgamation. That was certainly the case with the City of Fort McMurray vs. the surrounding municipal district; the city had all the costs of providing services for the families of the people who worked in the M.D., but none of the oil and gas revenue. It was unworkable, and the province stepped in to impose amalgamation. It may have solved Fort McMurray’s particular problems, but it seems to have also created others (see below).
Disputes over cost-sharing – particularly on recreational facilities – between ‘rurals’ and ‘urbans’ is very common. It is one of the bones of contention at the moment between the Town of Slave Lake and the M.D. of Lesser Slave River. It’s at the heart of a dispute also between the Town of Barrhead and the County of Barrhead. The town thinks the county should pay more; the county doesn’t think so. The town went as far a year ago as to force the county to the table to discuss amalgamation; the province ruled against that, but prescribed arbitration. According to Barrhead CAO Martin Taylor, the arbitrator’s report is on the minister’s desk and “we’re waiting for a reply.”
Taylor thinks the case could “become a template for Alberta.”
There are examples of the kind of ‘win-win’ amalgamations that Cuff speaks about. Lac La Biche and Lac La Biche County merged in 2007 in what seems to be a beneficial arrangement. Cuff was actually involved in that process. He says “it boiled down to leadership,” (or the lack of it) in that case. There was a dysfunctional situation in the town, and the minister stepped in and fired some of them. The amalgamation went ahead after that without a lot of opposition and seems to be working fairly well.
Strathcona County is another place where amalgamation seems to work. Sherwood Park could be going it alone – but it doesn’t. It’s just the largest ‘urban area’ in a county of many of them. So is Fort McMurray, although there’s a backlash arising in the RM of Wood Buffalo from the rural side. Several rural communities have banded together to demand a review of amalgamation, reports CBC News. They want a bigger piece of the pie; in effect, they want the kind of lifestyle that people in Fort McMurray have.
That wouldn’t be the case in Barrhead County or the M.D. of Lesser Slave River. Folks in those areas, by and large, probably don’t crave the lifestyle of their urban neighbours. They don’t want it, and they don’t want to give up what they have. That’s fairly typical, says Cuff.
“Rurals generally don’t have a lot of debt,” he says. “Where it (amalgamation) doesn’t work is when there’s a lot of grief over one having debt and the other doesn’t want it.”
That could be the case of Swan Hills and Big Lakes County. Swan Hills threatened in recent years to throw in the towel on self-government and invite the county to take over. The county didn’t want that, and decided instead to fork over a bigger annual subsidy (though it might not call it that) to Swan Hills That’s how things stand now.
Cuff says looking at the big picture (free from any ‘turf protection’ mentality), amalgamation can make a lot of sense.
“You need to put your pragmatic hat on,” he says. “The basic question – ‘what’s in the best interest of all of our citizens’ is sometimes not asked.”
Looking at the way things are leaning – meaning costs rising faster than revenues and signals out of government, Cuff feels confident in predicting “there will be fewer municipalities four years from now than there are now.”
Fair enough, but what about Slave Lake and Lesser Slave River?
The question of amalgamation came up at an election forum not long ago. All the M.D. council candidates said they were against it. Town council candidates, when asked a similar question at their forum, seemed not to have thought about it much. What all parties have said, quite firmly, is that the funding issues between the two parties have to be solved, because they need to get along. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and so on.
But nothing is going to make the funding shortfall go away; that is – nothing that does not involve a) a reduction in services or b) a sharp increase in taxes, or both. One way to ease the pain, it would seem, is to reduce costs by amalgamation administrations. That’s simple pragmatism to some people; to others, unpalatable loss of control.
It’s likely the topic will arise again.

 

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