No friend of rural municipalities

Written by Brenda Schimke

Of the three levels of government, federal, provincial and local, local municipal governments are the closest to the people and provide many of our essential services. Municipal governments don’t need polls to tell them what their constituents are feeling, they hear it daily at the local coffee shop, hockey arena or social event.

Under the constitution municipalities are powerless—they are simply creatures of the province. It’s through the Municipal Government Act (MGA) that provinces designate some of their responsibilities to local elected officials.

Yet the UCP government seems unaware of this fact and have gone out of their way to disregard and disrespect locally elected representatives since winning power. Even rural municipalities, no less, the very citizens they purport to support!

Take for example, just one hour after the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) wrapped up their convention, Premier Smith released mandate letters for two of her ministers instructing them to charge ahead with a provincial police force. An issue that rural municipalities have grave concerns about. Yet rather than telling them directly, UCP cabinet ministers, who were in attendance at the convention, scurried off to their Edmonton ‘safe zone’ and hid behind a press release.

The UCP never consulted with rural municipalities in 2020 before announcing that rural ratepayers would now be responsible to pick up 30 per cent of the increased costs for additions to rural policing—a $200 million dollar touch. Nor did they tell the electorate while campaigning in 2019, that their promise to increase rural policing would come with a steep annual invoice to rural municipalities.

The UCP government didn’t consult when they doubled their take from traffic and parking ticket revenues (27 per cent to 40 per cent) collected by municipalities.

The UCP government didn’t consult or listen to municipalities when it centralized ambulance dispatch services.

They didn’t consult when they reduced payments to municipalities for grants-in-lieu-of-taxes for government-owned properties within municipalities (25 per cent in 2019/20 and 50 per cent the following two years). Now, residential property owners and small businesses pay 100 per cent of municipal costs, whereas our ‘steal-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul’ UCP government decided they should pay only 50 per cent to use local municipal services.
The UCP government didn’t consult when they reduced the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) capital funding by 40.6 per cent for 2022 and 2023.

The UCP government didn’t consult when they froze the MSI operating funding for two years at the 2021 level. Given high inflation numbers, that is effectively a cut of seven per cent to eight per cent per year.

Premier Smith’s unilateral decision to return to coal mining in the Rockies needlessly threatens the water source for the southern Alberta corridor which is Alberta’s agricultural economic powerhouse. Once again showing an unhealthy bias for ‘Big Energy’ over ‘Big Agriculture’.

The UCP government facilitated the oil and gas industry’s ability to avoid paying their outstanding property taxes and made it impossible for municipal governments to have any chance of collecting defaults through the courts. The Rural Municipality Association (RMA) conducted a member survey identifying, as of December 31, 2021, approximately $253 million in property taxes currently owed to rural municipalities by oil and gas companies has gone unpaid. This was after rural municipalities wrote off millions in unpaid oil and gas taxes over the last couple of years.

The UCP government recently gave a three-year municipal property tax holiday on newly drilled wells for three years starting in 2022. Without consultation, the UCP government just took away multi-millions of property tax dollars normally owing to rural municipalities.

With a 135 per cent increase in new wells this year, there will be added stress on municipal roads, bridges and other municipal infrastructure, yet property taxes from these projects will not be seen until 2025—where, if past history prevails, by then most of these companies will have filed for bankruptcy!

Added together with the reductions to MSI capital and operating grants, rural elected leaders are completely exposed and have little manoeuvring room to keep municipal infrastructure maintained or replaced in the manner ratepayers expect.

The UCP party assumes that rural Albertans are so loyal that they will continue to vote for them, even as they balance their provincial budget on the backs of rural ratepayers and financially squeeze local services.

Rural municipalities have said clearly, they don’t want to waste money on a provincial police force. They have said they need consistent funding to provide consistent services. They are begging to once again be treated as partners in governance. Yet the UCP government continues to treat them like nuisance ‘lobbyist’.

Rural municipalities have so little financial room to manoeuvre. They are stuck between existing financial obligations, reduced revenues, and the need to maintain and add new services.

Perhaps it’s time to shake off our political loyalties and start selfishly thinking about what’s good for me, my family and my community, not what’s good for the elites of the United Conservative Party. When we do, it becomes painfully obvious that it is our very own UCP government that is dishing out serious harm to rural Alberta.

Essential services provided by municipalities, and, of course, health and education resources, are absolutely necessary if rural Alberta is going to keep and attract people, grow its economic base and sustain business viability in small-town Alberta.

The UCP government has never understood that there is only one taxpayer and that municipal governments are simply agents of the provincial government. Robbing municipalities to balance the province’s budget is simply ‘re-arranging the deck chairs,

Unfortunately because of economies of scale, these financial manipulations harm rural Albertans far more than those living in larger urban communities.

Brenda Schimke
ECA Review

About the author

Brenda Schimke

Schimke is a Graduate with Distinction from the University of Alberta with a BCom degree. She has lived and worked in Alberta, BC and Ontario.