Thursday, 21 July 2016 08:00

Politicians and others weigh in on the Government of Alberta’s ‘modernized’ Municipal Government Act

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During the open house, people had a good opportunity to mingle and chat. Here Jack Hayden, left, former MLA for Drumheller-Stettler under a Progressive Conservative government, speaks with two unidentified people as well as Barry Morishita, second from the right, who is the mayor of Brooks and representative on the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. During the open house, people had a good opportunity to mingle and chat. Here Jack Hayden, left, former MLA for Drumheller-Stettler under a Progressive Conservative government, speaks with two unidentified people as well as Barry Morishita, second from the right, who is the mayor of Brooks and representative on the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. Photo by Rose Sanchez

The summer tour of the modernized Municipal Government Act (MGA) wrapped up last week in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, after visiting more than 20 areas of the province.

The Medicine Hat meeting July 14 drew a variable who’s who of municipally-elected officials from cities, towns, counties and municipal districts to business representatives and school board trustees to representatives of non-profit or social agencies.
“We’re here to listen,” said Bob Wanner, MLA for Medicine Hat. “The modernized Municipal Government Act gives greater power and empowerment (to municipalities). It gives the tools and resources they need to build a more thriving community ... (and) a more diversified and vibrant economy.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee opened the formal part of the morning session by describing some of the major amendments made to the MGA.
The Bill for the modernized act was introduced in the legislature at the end of May after almost four years of consultation. Debate is expected to continue into the fall with amendments brought forward then, in terms of what was heard during the public sessions. Regulatory review and development will continue until January 2017, with final changes to the MGA, along with those regulations, set to be proclaimed later next year prior to the municipal elections in the fall of 2017.
Larivee highlighted some of the changes including the fact municipalities will be required to form regional partnerships; the additional ability of municipalities to collect off-site levies for fire halls, police stations, community recreation facilities and libraries at a certain threshold of use; the option of reserving a portion of a new development for affordable housing; creating a more flexible property tax framework; and the requirement of municipalities to develop and adopt codes of conduct for council members.
“This is just essentially a first draft,” pointed out Larivee. “Based on the feedback (we have received) we will make amendments as needed before debate ends this fall.”
More details about some of the major changes to the act were then presented by government officials. Discussion was broken into three areas: governance and administration; planning and development; and assessment and taxation. Then there was time for the more than 100 people in attendance to ask questions before the open house portion of the morning started where people could speak one on one with each other and government representatives and give more specific feedback.
Many of the questions focused on assessments and how that would be done or be changed as well as some concern about the impacts on business.
Stuart Angle, chair of the Prairie Rose School Division, was in attendance with fellow Trustee Cathy Hogg and Ryan Boser, secretary-treasurer. Angle asked why, when so many of the amendments to the MGA affect school boards, they were not recognized as a local authority and included in the discussions.
Larivee said it came to her attention earlier this year that school boards had not been specifically included in the conversation the past four years around MGA changes. At that time, officials with the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) and a few larger school boards sat down to have a discussion about their concerns.
“Now the Minister of Education is leading an engagement process (with ASBA and some larger school boards) to ensure the perspective of school boards is captured,” she added.
The two areas being discussed are the planning and development of schools and how that fits into the modernized MGA as well as the relationship piece and how municipalities and school boards should interact with one another.
“It’s good to be consulted finally,” said Angle, during the open house.
“We do have pretty good relationships with our municipal governments,” he added, but there is ramifications for school boards when talking about shared services as well as the land components.
Redcliff Mayor Ernie Reimer said he and his council have concerns about how changes to taxation and assessment in the MGA could affect their tax base as there are many greenhouses in the town.
“We have about 180 acres of greenhouses in town, so there is a huge concern in terms of the tax affect of that if the present situation did not continue,” he said.
Under the current MGA, greenhouses are taxed based on 50 per cent of their assessed value. Proposed MGA changes would mean urban farm buildings are exempt from assessment and property tax. It has since been clarified that greenhouses, as well as feedlots, are two examples of intensive agriculture, so would still be assessed and taxed.
“It is an extra strain on our storm sewer and the water that is supplied to them,” he said, adding if greenhouses could be taxed as commercial or even residential, it would be of more benefit to the municipality.
Cypress County councillors were at the event. They have concerns about the centralization of assessment as well as the linear tax and sharing that revenue source, said Reeve Darcy Geigle.
Linear tax revenues are collected from companies that have linear property items such as oil and gas wells, pipelines, or utility lines. Rural municipalities tend to receive the majority of these taxes.
Geigle pointed out that often urban municipalities receive more grant funding as grants are based on population. He questioned where rural municipalities are supposed to get funding from for maintaining infrastructure such as roads if it isn’t through linear taxation.
They also feel there is already fairly open discussion with their municipal neighbours about shared services, so are unclear if forcing a dialogue through the modernized MGA will be helpful, or just create more problems.
Barry Morishita, Brooks mayor and a representative on the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) board, was at the Medicine Hat session and prior to that had been at three other sessions in the province.
He said he has been struck by the genuine excitement of people in attendance for the opportunity to make the Act better as well as provide better governance for municipalities.
“There is a lot of concern about the regulations,” he added, about what he has been hearing. “There is so much detail in those regulations ... The government appears to be listening, so we hope that translates into good regulations.”
One area that was only touched on briefly at the Medicine Hat session, but is of concern to all municipalities is having stable funding legislated.
“It’s very difficult for municipalities to have a three-year operating plan and a five-year capital plan without funding that is a stable revenue source,” said Morishita. “It’s all grant based. It’s hard to be good planners when we don’t have that resource. We think it should be legislated.”

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Rose Sanchez

Assistant Managing Editor

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