The appetite for change was more than apparent in October, 2014 as several new councils were elected, ushering in a lot of bold and passionate rookies with a desire to put their stamp on policies that are innovative and facilitate constructive change.
It is no secret that municipalities are generally tasked with a lot of the heavy lifting, and yet do not get a proportionate share of the tax pie. Their autonomy is somewhat boxed in by provisions in the Municipal Act 2001 (amended by Bill 130 in 2004). They also face unique challenges with respect to community identity after the Mike Harris government, seeking efficiencies, enacted a double whammy of forced amalgamations and the downloading of services (the arguably inefficient and unjust LSRs - Local Service Realignments). Municipalities in this context still face numerous challenges, but they also have new opportunities - PPPs (private-public partnerships), shared services, dedicated economic development positions, and a growing sense of value has burgeoned in the past several years positioning municipalities as change agents and optimizing their political power to put pressure on provincial government. We have always to remember that municipalities are on the front-line of providing quality of life for residents of this province.
My focus is on rural and sparsely populated municipalities. Their issues and challenges are very much shared across the province. I believe there is a strong and prosperous future for these regions, and there is something far more preferable in said regions that one will not find in a larger, urban centre. The issues these regions face are partially the consequence of demographics, and partially remaining challenges that are holdovers from the 1996 amalgamations. Here are just a few of the many issues, in no particular order, and areas that I will be focusing on in the coming months, years, and (hopefully) in the context of a future municipal career:
- Declining Population: A decline in birthrate is a common reason, but there are also associated problems with youth retention and immigration settlement being favoured in urban areas. Out-migration of youth is tied to the economic situation as there may be fewer educational and career opportunities in smaller municipalities, and so youth may seek their futures elsewhere. Another problem with declining population would be that it has a direct impact on annual tax revenues so desperately required by municipalities to maintain or enhance their services.
- Aging Population: Demographics point to a shift towards a larger, greying population, and this comes with a host of associated challenges such as more pressure on local health services.
- Services Capacity I: Under this heading are several challenges, but one of the main challenges here is financial: to maintain the same level of services, this requires an increase in revenue. That may sound counter-intuitive, but reflect for a moment as to why this might be the case. First of all, services are staffed by people, and it is necessary to adjust wages appropriately to ensure wage and salary fairness (and, as we know, the cost of living continues to rise, not fall). Secondly, the facilities that provide some core services require increased maintenance over time. In this way, think of a car and how servicing it will increase as it ages. Equipment does break down and need to be repaired or replaced. Also, many of the services are dependent on what may seem peripheral, such as energy costs, which always seem to rise.
- Services Capacity II: One apparent benefit in recent years has been the influx of both seasonal and newly retired residents making their home in smaller municipalities. Although this may provide a healthy injection of new tax revenues, sometimes there is a misunderstanding whereby residents accustomed to larger urban services may not scale their expectations appropriately. When expectations are not scaled to the services and financial constraints of the municipality, there may arise a kind of post-urban / long-term resident tension as the former may believe that their taxes may entitle them to a level of services they were accustomed to in urban centres.
- Employment: We have to remember that many municipalities have their origin as being populated around industry. Railways, harbors, and later highways, became the arteries of manufacturing. From mills to heavy manufacturing, villages and towns grew up around these industries that provided a reliable economic benefit through jobs and peripherals. However, with the advance of neoliberalism, many manufacturers have shuttered and outsourced production abroad, leaving a painful and conspicuous economic hole in many, now struggling, communities. Municipalities must now accept that the major manufacturers are not coming back. But these smaller communities have something going for them, and a whole new opportunity to capitalize on their unique quality of life of pleasant small town community and safety, and that might be a draw for a new diversified economy that puts home-based and small businesses in the spotlight as drivers of economic change. Yes, it is devastating when a plant closure means the loss of 300 local jobs, but stability is in having several employers. What is better: 1 big employer with 300 employees, or 20 smaller employees each with 20 employees? We also have to square with the reality that some of these communities are effectively isolated in the transportation network, with some too far away from the 400-series highways to make relocation of a major plant economically less feasible.
- Community and Identity: There is no doubt that it will be at least a generation until the amalgamated communities recognize themselves as a community of communities, or a single community with abundant diversity instead of still abiding by old jurisdictional lines. The prospect of de-amalgamation is slim to none, and with increasing shared services, it may actually create more hardship than benefit. Municipalities have worked very hard to integrate their new responsibilities of an enlarged service area, and have streamlined staff and some assets to reduce duplication. One area that may see gains in building community is a focus on culture, heritage, and bold parks and recreation planning.
- Utilities and Transportation: many Ontario municipalities have taken advantage of funds to expand the fibre backbone that will make them more attractive for home-based e-businesses. However, there are other challenges ahead with respect to waste management and electric utilities (now with the imminent sale of 60% of Hydro One). Municipalities face difficult choices ahead in these areas and will require innovative solutions that will maintain or improve these services in the long term.
- Inter-Municipal Tensions: Not all municipalities are made equal. Some are tier one, tier two, and standalone towns. There are also issues of contention between lower tier municipalities and counties. In some cases, these differences in tiering can result in creating winners and losers. One example might be the costs of policing whereby some local governments have their own force, while others see their budgets imperiled by the high cost of OPP coverage in their area. New accords need to be drawn, and possibly there is space to discuss the possibility of harmonizing and aligning the different levels of local government.
- The Move Away from Representative Roles and Citizen Engagement: It is far too common that, when we are financially threatened, we start tightening our belts, pulling up the drawbridges, cut out perceived frills, and try to run an efficient operation. It is the belief of some reformers that elected officials should simply focus almost exclusively on administrative functions to achieve operational excellence in a constrained fiscal context. However, operational excellence should not come at the exclusion of Council’s representative role. One of the most valuable roles of Council is that it represents the values and aspirations of their constituents. Citizens need to understand much more about the vital role municipal government plays in their every day lives beyond seeing it as just another tax levying body that tries to find new ways of charging user fees. Many residents do not have an intimate understanding of where their taxes go, and this presents councillors with an ideal opportunity to beef up their communication with the public, to engage them regularly, and implement transparency and accountability policies to ensure that what happens in municipal government is not seen as some black box. Simply put, citizen engagement is a bilateral communication scenario whereby those who are engaged are more likely to be invested in the future of their community. If one’s only attachment to local government is voting every four years for the candidate who makes promises to lower taxes, that is not indicative of solid and continuing engagement.
There are several new ideas to meet these challenges. Some municipalities are seeking to make themselves “market ready,” and that involves the creation of an economic development officer position (the so-called “Ec-Dev” push), and municipal marketing plans, downtown master plans, beautification, and so forth. Others are pursuing the prospect of expanding their PPPs, as well as seeking shared services arrangements with neighbouring municipalities (for example, the sharing of a fire chief). Boosting culture and environment are also key to inspiring growth and quality of life. I would argue that there is a need to create a Parks & Recreation Director position in every municipality (more on that in a future post).
In the context of strategic planning, I am learning ever more as I go. I suspect that my entry into the MAP program will further my understanding of many of these issues, and empower me to take on a leadership role in advocating for positive change whereby rural and sparsely populated communities thrive and prosper for many generations to come.