Calgary·Analysis

What urban Alberta wants from whoever forms the next government

More than 80 per cent of Albertans live in urban areas, but the question of what those municipalities want and what the various parties in the provincial election are offering has been almost completely absent from electoral debate.

Over 80% of Albertans live in urban areas, but a focus on what's needed is barely part of the election debate

Calgary, above, and Edmonton negotiated special agreements with the province, while the rest of Alberta's municipalities wait for stable funding. (Leslie Kramer/CBC, Manpreet Kooner)

More than 80 per cent of Albertans live in urban areas, but the question of what those municipalities want and what the various parties in the provincial election are offering has been almost completely absent from electoral debate.

That's not to say there aren't plans and pleas, from parties and from cities, but they are sidelined.

Sure, leaders talk a good game about reducing the vacancy in Calgary's business core with the help of diversification or tax cuts, but what about regional planning and stable infrastructure funding?

Anyone down for a good debate on the future of Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant funding?

Hello?

Dry, yes, but important. 

The United Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals all tackle some urban issues in their platforms and policies, but those haven't had splashy, custom-made-podium announcements like child care and carbon taxes.

Dig down, however, and there's plenty to sink your urban teeth into. It's just a question of whether it's the right meal for the occasion.

The big two

It's important to differentiate right off the bat: there's Calgary and Edmonton and then there's the rest.

"You have to remember that Calgary and Edmonton are so much bigger than the other municipalities, that after Edmonton, the next one, Red Deer, is one-tenth the size of Edmonton almost," said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Both cities negotiated city charter agreements with the province, setting them up as special cases within Alberta's legislative relationship with its municipalities. They received more power for things like subdivisions and developments.

"We know what we're doing, and so we don't need to go to daddy at the province for all of our decisions, and that's been a great thing, and I think that will continue to pay big dividends," said Nenshi.

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They also received a new funding deal tied to the province's financial fortunes.

"So we negotiated a new fiscal framework with the province, and our in-going discussion was, 'look, we are willing to take the ups and downs with the province, it means we've got to be on the ups, but it also means we'll work with you on the downs,'" said Nenshi.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi says it's important that Calgary and Edmonton are recognized as special cases among Alberta's municipalities. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"And so now we have this revenue-sharing tool in place. It's something we've been pushing for for a long time, I'm very excited about it. The only problem is that it starts with a huge cut. And so we will only get back to 2017 levels of funding in something like 2032, long after the provincial budget is balanced."

It's why Calgary launched a website pushing for whoever forms the next government to honour current commitments for projects like the Green Line LRT and the Springbank Reservoir, to move forward on flood mitigation and social housing, as well as helping to close what it calls an infrastructure gap.

Edmonton, meanwhile, is asking its residents to talk to candidates and parties about transit funding, roads and housing on its own provincial election site.

The other urban areas

The smaller municipalities in the province are still covered exclusively under the Municipal Government Act, a sprawling document that outlines what they are and are not allowed to do. All their power is handed down through the province, a relationship often described as parochial.

The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association membership list includes the major cities and all those others still covered under the Municipal Government Act and lacking a new financial deal with the province.

"Along with the other things that were added to the fiscal framework, where there's some extra money coming in 2026 for other projects, I think if we had those things we'd be more than happy, which makes it even kind of a little bit tougher to swallow," said Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita, the president of the AUMA.

Brooks Mayor Barry Morishita is pressing for more power for urban municipalities in his role as president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

He says his members want the same kind of financial deal as the big cities, where investments in infrastructure will be tied to the provincial budget, and they want that deal before the current funding model dies in 2022.

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"Half the population in the province has a deal. Half of it doesn't, and it's not fair, it's not right."

Morishita says the municipalities together own about 60 per cent of the infrastructure in the province but are dependent on property tax to "deal with it." He also says they're expected to send three-year operating plans and five-year capital plans to the province but have no way of knowing how they'll be funded in 2023.

"I mean, if we lose a significant amount of provincial support that's gone to these infrastructure projects, you know, there's some very, very, very hard decisions lying ahead for municipalities, and thus the residents are going to bear the results of that," said Morishita.

A seat at the table

Municipalities also want more say in how they're allowed to govern and how other levels of government spend money in their communities. At the least, the municipalities want a seat at the table. Maybe even to be recognized as an order of government.

The AUMA is focusing its energy in three areas this election: that whole infrastructure question, as well as a fair share of cannabis revenue and improved resources for policing services.

Morishita says cannabis is on that list because it's a front-of-mind issue, and because cities and towns are expected to shoulder the financial burden of legalization without an equal share of the benefits.

Many municipalities rely on agreements with the RCMP for policing but feel they aren't heard when making decisions on how it operates in the community. (CBC)

On policing, Morishita would be happy if it just started with a conversation about what's needed in local communities and how to move forward with the federal and provincial governments to achieve that.

"I might get in trouble for saying this, but I'm kind of tired of the kind of the pat on the shoulder, 'Yeah, that's great, we're listening to you and we're going to work with you on that,'" he said.

"And then ultimately nothing happens that's different."

Where the parties line up

While the big photo op announcements haven't focused on what towns and cities in Alberta want, that's not to suggest the parties vying to form the next government aren't thinking about it.

The NDP has some policies spread throughout its platform, while the Liberals and the UCP have specific urban policies laid out.

The Liberals seem to have almost lifted the AUMA priorities off the page and affixed them to their policy on urban centres, but they added recognition of municipalities and their councils as an order of government — something that isn't true now.

Also on the list is "new revenue-generating powers" for Edmonton and Calgary and veto powers for municipalities on oil and gas exploration within their borders.

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The UCP probably has the most robust list of promises for cities and towns, including stable funding — details to come — and public-private partnerships for infrastructure.

The UCP wants to allow municipalities to use property tax incentives to attract businesses, cut red tape in dealing with the province and improve local financial reporting, and consult on police funding, among others.

Meanwhile, the NDP says it will negotiate agreements with municipalities akin to the financial framework established for Calgary and Edmonton and work with smaller communities to fix things like hockey arenas, swimming pools and rec centres.

They pledge to build more affordable housing.

What we're not talking about

So the cities want money and some guarantee that the money won't dry up unexpectedly. The parties with policies on cities and towns seem open to that. But does that solve the problems faced by municipalities in Alberta? What isn't being discussed?

For James Wilt — a freelance journalist who interviewed two dozen experts for a chapter on cities and the Alberta NDP in the recent book Orange Chinook — the answer is regionalization and regional co-operation.

"It did come up time and time again just because of the way that [Ralph] Klein basically abolished any sort of planning process at all and it's been largely voluntary and just like a free-for-all," he said.

The 10 municipalities of the Calgary Metropolitan Region Board are mandated to meet and discuss regional issues. (Calgary Metropolitan Region Board)

"So it's created these very local, complicated conflicts, which until very recently the province hasn't attempted to intervene in at all."

An example of some of the issues: a city or town could provide things like rec centres and libraries that serve a regional population while at the same time watching as their tax revenues are hoovered out of the local economy by a county or district on its border.

Beyond that there are planning issues like transit that aren't being dealt with on a regional basis, at least not a mandated one.

The current status of co-operation is mandated in regions like Edmonton and Calgary, where regional boards have to come up with a growth plan, a servicing plan and "develop and implement policies for the sharing of costs for regional projects."

But the effectiveness of those boards is still up in the air, and the decisions they make won't necessarily impact where provincial money is spent. The government has set aside $50 million each year for regional projects.

Wilt's chapter notes that all it really does is mandate that everyone has to sit in the room together, but failure to work together affects infrastructure, budgets, funding, the environment and flood mitigation.

An opportunity

Wilt was looking at the suggestion the NDP is a party of the cities and how it missed the opportunity to implement significant changes when it inherited a review of the Municipal Government Act.

"They did have an opportunity to kind of implant something that would last well beyond them even if they don't make it in the next election, and they chose not to," said Wilt.

He cites regional revenue sharing as an example. 

When asked about regional co-operation and its omission from Calgary's list of priorities, Nenshi said: "Shoot, now that you told me that, I feel like I should have put it there."

But he added that he's interested in giving the Calgary Metropolitan Regional Board, established just over a year ago, a chance to prove its worth.

"I remember that in 1993, premier Klein quite suddenly, without much warning, abolished the regional boards. Hopefully no one's thinking about that," said Nenshi.

About the Author

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca. Signal contact upon request. CBC Secure Drop: www.cbc.ca/securedrop/

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