By Trevor Busch
The potential impact of the MacKinnon report on municipal bottom lines throughout Alberta has communities bracing for financial restraint when the provincial budget is handed down on Oct. 24.
Key recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Panel on the province’s finances have signaled that municipalities should expect to shoulder more infrastructure and building costs as the UCP wrestle Alberta’s fiscal situation back into the black.
“Some of that so far is still very speculatory,” said Mayor Andrew Prokop. “That report was pretty in depth, but a lot of it is opinions and observations and nothing that can be actually concrete until we actually see the budget.”
The MacKinnon report also pushed for a policy on selling off public lands to generate revenue, and reform of current funding formulas for cities. With the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding program agreement set to expire in 2021-2022, questions remain about the future of that initiative, or if it may be subject to significant changes. Stabilization of Alberta’s Capital Maintenance and Renewal spending program — utilized to extend the life of assets and reduce operating costs — is being targeted to prioritize funds for areas of greatest need and establish accountability and performance measures.
After attending the recent Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) conference which featured addresses from opposition leader Rachel Notley and Premier Jason Kenney, Prokop is expecting a measure of municipal restraint from the province in next week’s budget.
“I think overall municipalities in the province are expecting there are going to be cuts in different areas. They’ve sort of alluded to that already with a couple of their addresses to the province through the premier, Jason Kenney. So it’s really hard to say.”
Another fear that has arisen in recent weeks centers on speculation about potential UCP plans for downloading the cost of rural policing onto municipalities in the province, an idea which has already drawn opposition from various communities.
Under the present model in Alberta, police costs are fully covered by the province for municipalities under 5,000 people. Detailing manpower issues in RCMP detachments in southern Alberta, Prokop argued rural crime needs to be taken seriously.
“The rural crime issue is up, and to be short, you need to have more manpower availability, not less. That only adds to the growing problem. Currently under 5,000 doesn’t pay, and now they’re looking to change that. So that’s causing some grief for these smaller municipalities on how they’re going to deal with that, because they haven’t had to previously.”
In a statement last week, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said fears about policing cuts are unfounded, and his press secretary confirmed “the government will not be cutting police funding to municipalities at all.”
Nevertheless, Prokop believes provincial reform of the under 5,000 police funding model in the province would not be unwarranted.
“I believe that is a fair and reasonable ask, or solution, to help with the cause. They’ve been very lucky for all these years because of that 5,000 or less number, and everybody else is paying. I really don’t think that’s unreasonable. How they get to that, they haven’t had to budget for that before so I understand that’s a new hardship and challenge for them now. But you have to have adequate policing, that’s just a fact of life. If that’s what’s necessary, they’re just going to have to find a way to deal with that. I think it’s very fair and reasonable all the way around.”
Some sources citing government documents had suggested the UCP may have been considering offloading up to 70 per cent of rural policing costs onto municipalities. The province spends roughly $232 million annually on frontline policing.
The Taber Police Service receives an annual $100,000 provincial grant to fund an additional officer, and Prokop reports that as part of a provincial review of all government finances, the TPS is currently only receiving 50 per cent of that funding with no guarantees regarding the balance in the Oct. 24 budget.
“The money that we’ve got, we’ve got half. All municipalities are receiving half right now. We’re in a holding phase for when the other half is coming. We haven’t had that before, this is the first. I hope that’s the end of it, because that’s going to impact us and anybody else also that receives that one member. I just hope it’s delayed like it was suggested — they didn’t say that outright — but we were only going to receive the half initially, and the rest will be decided after the budget comes in. It’s some pretty key points of information that we’re all waiting to hear, and that’s one.”