County, town cautiously optimistic about MGA changes

Changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA) are coming closer to being enacted as Bill 21 enters the committee phase.

Changes to the Municipal Government Act (MGA), which governs how municipalities in Alberta are run, are coming closer to being enacted as Bill 21 enters the committee phase.

Shawna Benson, legislative services advisor for the County of Stettler, and Greg Switenky, CAO of the Town of Stettler, had a few thoughts on the proposed changes.

A significant part of the proposed changes are the intermunicipal collaboration framework (ICF) requirements. While the town and county already collaborate in many ways — on recreation, ambulance service and fire services, to name a few — these collaborations will need to be formally recognized.

Many communities don’t collaborate as much as the county and town have, both Benson and Switenky, said.

“We already do a lot of things on our own that the MGA will (now) set in stone,” Benson said, adding that it’s a very positive boost to both administration and councillors that their work in the previous years has been proven to be in the right direction.

She said the MGA was in “desperate need” of an update, and added administration is cautiously happy with the changes revealed thus far. However, there are some places the changes fell short.

“We were disappointed that the act didn’t regulate core infrastructure funding,” Benson said. She explained that in the past years, the province has downloaded several infrastructure requirements down to municipalities, with the promise of funding to cover the costs. In most ways, through gas tax grants and Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) grants, the province has come through, but municipalities are left not knowing what the funding will be.

“It’d be nice to have that set in stone,” Benson said. “We want that entrenched. Ten-year capital plans that really meant something would be possible. Right now, they’re really just guesses.”

Switenky said he thought the changes were slightly underwhelming, especially given the past three years worth of consultation, meetings and feedback.

“I’m not as happy with it as I thought I’d be,” he said. “They really missed the boat on a few things.”

While, like Benson, he’s cautiously optimistic about the changes proposed to the act, he said he felt a lot of the changes didn’t have teeth. For example, municipalities would be required to offer training to elected officials, but the elected official is not required to take the training.

One thing Switenky said he was happy to see would be possible is split non-residential tax rates. This means the town could develop bylaws that allow the town to develop different tax rates for non-residential land. For example, small “mom and pop shops” might not have the same tax rate as a large chain business.

However, Switenky said “the devil will be in the details,” as it’s the regulations that go with these changes, which won’t be developed until after the changes to the act are approved and voted into law, won’t be fully developed.

Some things weren’t touched at all — school taxes, assessments on farmland, linear assessment — to name a few.

“There were all sorts of fears that would be touched,” Switenky said.

Ultimately, Switenky said he believed the planned changes would be rated B by the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA), of which the Town of Stettler is a part. He said the changes do a lot to improve parity within municipalities and different types of municipalities (towns and counties, for example).