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OPINION: How many municipalities is too many?




How much is too much?


With 334 municipalities scattered across the province, a question has been batting around in my brain since I left the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) Spring Convention in Edmonton.


Are there too many municipalities in Alberta?


The conversation began when RMA delegates grappled with the challenges facing small urban municipalities. Representatives from Stettler County and Starland County voice concerns about the viability of communities with fewer than 500 residents.


Both rural municipalities express concerns regarding the state of small urban communities within their jurisdictions, particularly those with populations under 500 residents. Starland County Councillor for Division Four, Jacqueline Watts, raised these concerns during the first day of the Bear Pit Sessions in Edmonton. She directed her queries to the Minister of Municipal Affairs, seeking clarification on the measures being taken to mitigate potential negative impacts on rural municipalities tasked with integrating smaller urban municipalities.


The Minister, the Hon. Ric McIver, appeared somewhat taken aback by the questions posed by Councillor Watts and Stettler County Reeve Larry Clark. While he expressed reluctance to advocate for the dissolution of municipalities, he acknowledged the significance of the issue. He remarked, “With 330 municipalities in Alberta and a population of 4.5 million, that’s a lot of municipalities compared to what we might have. But on the other hand, who am I to tell other people how to spend their money? If they want to pay for their own mayor, reeve, and council in their municipality.”


This exchange prompts reflection on whether Alberta's current count of 334 municipalities is excessive.


To assess the scale of Alberta's municipal landscape, one need only look at neighbouring provinces. Saskatchewan, with a population of 1.2 million residents, is represented by 767 municipalities. Meanwhile, Manitoba, with a slightly larger population of 1.3 million, operates with only 137 municipalities.


These comparisons offer valuable insights into the relative size of Alberta's municipal sector. Are 334 municipalities too many for a province with a population of 4.5 million? The answer to this question lies at the intersection of governance, community needs, and economic viability. In 2012, Manitoba underwent a significant transformation when the provincial government announced its decision to compel municipalities with populations below 1,000 residents to amalgamate with neighbouring communities. This directive was formalized in 2013 with the passage of the Municipal Amalgamation Act, which mandated the amalgamation of municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents with their neighbouring counterparts. Consequently, the province witnessed a reduction in the number of municipalities from 197 to 137.


Doug Dobrowolsk, the then-president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM), expressed the organization's stance on amalgamation. While not inherently opposed to the concept, Dobrowolsk emphasized the importance of allowing municipalities to make informed decisions tailored to their unique community needs. He raised concerns about the forced nature of the amalgamation process and criticized the proposed timeline, arguing that successful amalgamations should occur at a pace conducive to all parties involved.


Dobrowolsk's remarks underscored the AMM's commitment to preserving local autonomy and democratic principles amidst the amalgamation initiative.


Nearly a decade has passed since the implementation of forced amalgamation, making it a pertinent topic for discussion at this year's AMM Spring Convention in Brandon, Manitoba. So when I'm there It will be a question I'll be asking delegates.


Former Manitoba Local Government Minister Ron Lemieux provided insight into the rationale behind the government's decision to pursue amalgamation. He highlighted the antiquated nature of many municipal boundaries, some of which were established over a century ago, and asserted that amalgamation would facilitate larger municipalities' ability to attract business and foster economic development. Lemieux cited streamlined administrative processes and regionally tailored services as potential benefits of amalgamation, emphasizing its potential to align infrastructure and services with natural communities of interest.


However, the forced amalgamation initiative in Manitoba sparked significant backlash within the municipal sector. Dissatisfaction with the provincial government's approach was palpable, with some communities expressing vehement opposition to the amalgamation mandate. Walter Finlay, a councillor in the RM of Glenwood, conveyed the prevailing sentiment of discontent in an interview with Global News. Finlay criticized the government for disregarding municipal concerns and imposing amalgamation within an unreasonably tight timeframe. His remarks underscored the frustration and sense of alienation felt by rural communities grappling with centralized decision-making processes.


Finlay expressed this sentiment, stating, “We feel like we are being ignored by the provincial government in Manitoba; they don’t seem to be paying any attention to what we feel is the right thing, and they are trying to force amalgamation on us in a very limited time schedule.” He further remarked, “It appears we have more in common with Saskatchewan than we have with the city of Winnipeg, which controls ¾ of the power of the province.”


What happens if we replicated Manitoba's approach in Saskatchewan and Alberta?


In Alberta, using the 2021 Canadian Census data, with a threshold of 1,000 residents required to maintain municipal incorporation, 156 Towns, Villages, and Summer Villages – and even some Rural municipalities – would need to seek new partnerships.


Implementing such measures would reduce Alberta's municipal landscape from 334 to 178 municipalities. However, this assumes that none of the 156 communities would form new incorporated municipalities.


Now, turning to Saskatchewan it offers an intriguing case study. Suppose the Saskatchewan government were to wake up tomorrow and declare that 774 municipalities were too many, and those with under 1,000 residents must amalgamate with neighbouring communities. In that case, approximately 645 municipalities would be affected by the amalgamation process.


But would such a scenario materialize? History suggests otherwise.


In 2020, the then-president of SUMA, Gordon Barnhart, expressed his concerns, stating, "I might be run out of town, but, to my mind, I think we're starting to get close to crisis proportions, where these communities are needing help to survive and thrive." He emphasized the reliance of many communities on small and shrinking tax bases, some with fewer than 100 people, which poses significant challenges in providing services.


Barnhart's remarks stirred controversy in the province, prompting the Board of SUMA to issue a statement clarifying the president's position. The board firmly stated its opposition to municipal amalgamation, particularly forced amalgamation, recognizing the complexities and difficulties associated with such initiatives.


The controversy prompted the province to issue a statement clarifying its stance: it does not support any form of forced municipal amalgamation.


So, the question arises: could Alberta follow in Manitoba's footsteps and compel municipalities to merge with neighbouring communities? A recent report from the University of Calgary, titled "Assessing the Viability of Smaller Municipalities: The Alberta Model," sheds light on this issue.


According to the authors, 24 municipalities have undergone viability reviews to date, with 14 choosing to dissolve. Upon dissolution, these municipalities become hamlets within the surrounding County or Municipal District. While this dissolution process has been successful in Alberta, challenges persist. Dissolution alone does not resolve all community issues; instead, the problems that led to dissolution remain and become the responsibility of the absorbing entity. Moreover, more municipalities are likely to face similar challenges, necessitating ongoing monitoring of local community health. Providing support to struggling municipalities, as well as the counties and districts that may assume responsibility for them, will be essential to ensure the sustainability of Alberta's existing municipal framework. Amidst the myriad challenges confronting municipalities across Canada, more question arises: Can smaller urban communities in Alberta endure? Will Alberta emulate Manitoba and advocate for amalgamation as a necessary step for the viability of municipalities in the province?


Regardless, McIver's acknowledgment of "What we might have," regarding Alberta's 330 municipalities serving a population of 4.5 million suggests that there may be a change coming that municipalities need to watch out for.


So, buckle up, Alberta's Minister of Municipal Affairs may have inadvertently initiated a conversation that he did not anticipate.

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