On July 30, the provincial government announced a new financial assistance program for municipalities called the Municipal Stimulus Program. The introduction and naming of this program was a missed opportunity. It should have been named the “Regional” (instead of municipal) Stimulus Program to have the intended benefits.
Then, in December, Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard sent notification to all chief elected officials, which stated, in part: “Municipalities are required to take actions that advance at least one of the following objectives: make it easier to start up a new business in your community; streamline processes and shorten timelines for development and subdivision permit approvals; make your community a more attractive destination for new investment and/or tourism”.
For perhaps the largest 50 (of 352) municipalities in Alberta, this requirement by the minister may be a legitimate undertaking, but for the tiny municipalities (50 per cent are tiny), having to do this task to justify much-needed financial relief to survive, this is fraught with red tape to do this work. For the approximately 140 villages and summer villages, what red tape actually exists? They only have one to three employees each. What difficult permit approvals are contemplated? These 140 municipalities are on life support.
In 2020, the Villages of Ferintosh, Cereal, Granum, Wabamun, Manning and Dewberry all voted to “dissolve” and become hamlets. The Village of Hythe is under review. For all the 140 smallest municipalities, there is minimal new investment potential, there is minimal tourism potential. There is already no red tape. But what about their immediate regions? That is another story. The opportunity to incentivize regions was missed. Regions (or hubs of trade) could benefit by this newly announced program.
The smallest municipalities will now be granted funds after each one sends to the province some shallow report – 140 of them. These reports will not be read or evaluated by anyone. They are token documents and red tape in and of themselves. These 140 smallest municipalities will receive their token funding to continue to survive. In the meantime, pooling money within their region could have had an impact. After all, when municipalities hunt in a pack, they have to behave and deliver results as a region.
The regional movement has been stirring since the 1950s in Alberta, beginning with the McNally Commission. This was followed by the Hyndman report, then the Radke report. Then, the province updated the Municipal Government Act, requiring the formation of the Edmonton and Capital Region Boards over the past 15 years in an attempt to continue with the regionalism movement that is occurring globally. Recently, there have been additional requirements of Intermunicipal Development Plans and Intermunicipal Collaboration Frameworks, all of which have been regionalism advancements. The new “Municipal” Stimulus Program was an opportunity to further advance this regional work and the opportunity was missed.
Municipalities today face challenges in workforce, transportation, housing, open space and social inclusion that cannot be adequately addressed by traditional political jurisdictions and boundaries. All these issues must now be examined more thoroughly on a regional level where economic, environmental and social issues become more harmonized. Economic development extends beyond a county, beyond a village and beyond a town or city into regional economic clusters. In short, regions are where the action is and should be recognized as such to advance the provincial economic development mandate. The opportunity to do so was missed, clearly creating new red tape.