Question of the Week

Here, we post a question (or two) of the week that has been picked up via social media or direct contact with councillors/municipal offices in the region. You can also ask a question directly by sending us an email at feedback@flagstaffunited.ca and we will answer it on this page.

A short Question and Answer sheet for the initiative itself is available HERE.

Q: Will there be a referendum to determine if we proceed with a new model single tier model of government?

A: There will be open consultations in every community to gather input and feedback on the option of amalgamation between our municipal governments coming in June. We need to note that we already had one round of town halls last year to discuss what working together could and should look like. At those town halls we also asked those who participated whether they wanted to have a vote on the matter, or get on with implementation. There was a very strong sentiment that we needed to get on with implementation of a new cooperative model. However, that is not the end of the process.

In this next round of consultation we will be discussing the details of a model and gather feedback and ideas from you. We will also be listening for whether people want to get on with implementing the model, or if they want a referendum on the matter. The legislation is very clear that vigorous public consultations needs to be held on the matter, and the opinions and feedback need to be recorded and reported in any application for change of governance. It is also very clear that there is no requirement for a referendum and that if one is held it is considered part of the process, but it is non-binding. Our goal is to fully explain how the model would work, gather your feedback and ideas, and then make a decision on how to proceed together. That may become clear through the public consultations or it may mean we need a vote. Ultimately the decision will be made by a vote by each community’s municipal council. We would like to ensure that whatever we do does not cause divisions among us, but brings us together and focused on making our communities stronger in the future. We do hope to see you all at the upcoming public consultations.

Q. How will working together as a region help us attract new businesses and/or residents?

A. Over the last 20 years, the municipalities in the region have been finding new ways to work together, so that we can deliver better services, more services, and more affordable services. There is a long list of the agreements and partnerships we have in place already. There is plenty of evidence that when we don’t work together it’s not better for any of us, but when we do work together we can achieve great things.

The province has a lot of new requirements coming through the new Municipal Government Act that will place new burdens and costs on each of our municipalities. Every elected official will be required to take training, and we will be required to do a policy review and post those policies on an accessible website, or they will not be considered to exist. Those items, of course, add increased expenses to each municipality.

That is not all, however. Each of our communities will also be required to do a Municipal Development Plan (which we were exempt from previously), an Inter-Municipal Development Plan with neighbouring municipalities, and an Inter-Municipal Collaboration Framework (which focuses on enacting opportunities for shared services). Those are items are not cheap, and there is no way to avoid them. Attempting to circumvent the new requirements means that a mediator we don’t know will do them for each of us and we will still pay the bill. And then there are all the new requirements to meet environmental, labour, OH&S, legal, accounting, and so many other anticipated legislative changes. The capacity of our municipalities to handle the workload is going to reach its limit, and the ability for us to pay for it may not be too far behind.

We have the chance to avoid the time, energy and expense of doing more of these plans than we need, and having our hard-working administrations duplicate work. We unfortunately then have no time to spend on initiatives that could attract families and businesses to the region. The governance proposal we are working on is intended to ensure we have a more constructive use of the tax dollars we have so that we can invest properly in opportunities. So, working together doesn’t provide a guarantee the region will attract new businesses and families, but it will give us the opportunity and resources to try, and we have to try. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to do something.

Q. I have heard that the work to create new governance model for the region is delayed. Can you provide an update?

A. The work has taken slightly longer than hoped, but only by a month or so. The target has always been to produce a model the public has time to properly consider and discuss, with the intention of implementing something in time for the next election. There are concerns that not completing this before the election could mean the process stops, or that new councils demand everything start over from the beginning. We know the importance of consulting the communities, both councils and the public, and ensuring they have plenty of time to ask questions and understand what is being proposed. This consultation is the most important part of exploring new options.

This is an important decision and everyone deserves time to ask their questions and learn of the benefits and challenges to Regional Governance. We won’t sacrifice proper discussions and gathering feedback from you, for the sake of a deadline. We are preparing to do extensive public consultations within each community in June, where we will present the governance model and get your feedback. We will still strive to reach our timeline goals, but our ultimate goal remains finding the best option for us as a region. We need to find ways for us to attract new families and businesses to our communities so that our challenges become focused on managing growth, rather than fighting for our survival. Our future depends on it.

Q. Sedgewick withdrew from FIP’s Regional Governance Sub-Committee because they think we are going too fast. Are we going too fast and is Sedgewick’s departure a bad sign?

No. FIP has been working on regional services arrangements for 14 years. The Regional Governance Initiative work has been ongoing for two years. The convergence of all of this work led to a conclusion: a unanimous December, 2016 FIP motion to craft a single tier regional governance model (by late Spring this year) for region residents to consider. Why? Because when all information acquired to date is considered, FIP believes this is the best shot to create stability and sustainability for our communities, and best position for a stable/growing population in future.

Change is hard and creates unknowns. It’s reasonable to assume that some along the way will push back against a direction that is being pursued. While we respect Sedgewick’s decision, we believe we owe it to our region residents to pull our two years of governance exploration effort together by putting a regional governance solution on the table for region residents to consider.

No municipality can be forced to do anything around regional governance. At the same time, provisions in the new Municipal Government Act will require contiguous municipalities to establish formal collaborative relationships. We don’t believe that 40+ politicians and nine municipal governments serving roughly 8000 people is a best solution for the future. We therefore believe we owe it to our residents to offer what we feel is a best governance solution to position us most effectively for a successful future that generates jobs, opportunities, and community sustainability. And that’s what we will continue to do through the spring and summer as we socialize a regional governance solution with residents. At the end of the day, each municipality will have their own choice to pursue this recommended solution…or not.

Q. Will the communities in the region receive less annual grant funding from the Province if we amalgamate?

A. To put the answer in context, the municipalities in the region received $5.3 million in grant funding from the Province in 2016, which represents 12% of their collective total revenue of $42 million. As of 2017, grant funding levels between amalgamation and the status quo vary over a 10-year period. The breakdown is as follows:

• Year 1: The municipalities within the region would collectively receive $1.5 million more in the first year if they choose to amalgamate vs retain status quo ($6.8 million vs $5.3 million).
• Years 2-5: The municipalities within the region would collectively receive the exact same amount whether they are amalgamated as one municipality or remain nine municipalities ($21 million).
• Years 6-10: The municipalities within the region would collectively receive $6.61 million less as amalgamated than if they remain as individual municipalities, IF we presume the funding formula goes unchanged for a full decade ($18.2 million vs $26.3 million in years 6-10).

It’s important to note that the provincial funding formulas have seen changes every year, so it would be presumptuous to assume that the formula will remain the same for an entire decade, however, we cannot presume the formula will change in the future, either.

While the long term impact does not appear to be favourable, some perspective is required:

• Based on current total region-community revenue, this annual grant reduction would be only 3% of total annual revenue for years 6-10.
• The Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership has approach the Province to point out the need for more favourable short-term funding for amalgamation scenarios – particularly for more complex amalgamations involving several communities. They are asking that the formula change to be at least a revenue-neutral long-term (10 years) funding scenario for communities that opt to amalgamate.
• Provincial funding can change, as it has historically. We can only calculate impacts based on what is in place today.
• An amalgamation scenario produces some cost efficiencies – including lower costs related to having fewer elected officials, and efficiencies in pooling resources to re-invest in aging infrastructure.
• Government grants from both the province and the federal governments are usually based on per capita formulas, so the number of governments we have in the region isn’t nearly as important as the number of people.

Our choices need to be based on more than just money. The opportunity to grown our region will take much more work than accessing more government grants. We know the value is significant enough to warrant consideration, but we also know our future and our determination to grow the region by attracting new families, new businesses, and new industries must be based on considerations that extend beyond funding government granting. Government grants haven’t helped grow our region yet, and they won’t be the answer to our success in the future then they have been in the past. We must do more ourselves.

Our goal all along has been to find ways to work better together so we have a chance to grow. We know we will need to work together if we are to find a way to attract families and investment to our region….as we have watched our populations and tax bases dwindle. If we do nothing, nothing will change.

Q: The region has many boards that manage regional issues. What happens to those boards if we chose to amalgamate?

A: Currently each municipality has representation on the regional boards that manage regional issues, such as housing. If the municipalities choose to amalgamate there will be many cases where those boards are unnecessary since they would duplicate the work of a regional council, which would have representation from across the region already. There may be other cases, however, where there would still be an advantage to having a board governance system, particularly where there are advantages to having board members that are not elected councillors – such as community members at large, businesses, or volunteers. So, it may turn out that a board is not necessary for seniors’ housing and waste management, but it may still be valuable to have a board for economic development or recreation, where you would want members of the business community, volunteers and the public involved. Such determinations will be made as the process unfolds to ensure the best level of involvement and public engagement, but it is clear that in many cases their boards would not be necessary.

Q: If all of the municipalities come together as one municipality will that impact our ability to apply for grants through federal and provincial programs?

A: The worry expressed in this question stems from the idea that there are currently nine municipalities in the region that can apply for grants, but if the municipalities agree to an amalgamation there could be only one municipality that applies for grants and that could impact the funding levels. In actuality, most funding programs to municipalities through the federal and provincial governments are based on things such as population. That means that having more municipalities would not improve the chances of getting a grant, or the level of program funding awarded. One municipality of 8500 people would have the same chance and receive the same funding, as nine municipalities with a combined population of 8500 people putting in nine applications. In fact, a striking advantage of amalgamation is the ability to submit one high caliber application for program funding, and the potential cost and time savings over having nine municipalities all complete their own application process and compete for awards. That alone is not a reason to consider amalgamation, but remaining as nine municipalities presents no inherent advantage in grant and program applications for funding.

Q: Is a regional governance option still viable if certain municipalities on the outer edge like Daysland or Hardisty choose not to join?

A: Yes. When the Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership completes development of a proposed single-tier regional governance model (anticipated in the Spring), region residents will then be asked to take a look, provide feedback, and consider whether they support – or don’t – a regional governance solution. With any tweaks (based on resident input) completed, each Council in the region will be asked to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to their participation in the proposed solution. If a specific community opts not to participate, will exist as it has. This is a voluntary decision. There is no law that requires participation.

Q: Why do I see “Flagstaff logos” on the discussion about region-based governance? Is the County “taking over?”

A: No – the County is an equal partner with all nine communities currently exploring a more region-based governance option. This partnership is called the Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership, which has a long track record in collaborating on a series of region-based services and initiatives that generate benefits for all residents in the region. Any resolve to pursue a governance option based on amalgamation would mean all communities in essence dissolve their governance structures and form a new structure. This includes the County.

When we built the website and needed to name the initiative, we decided to use “Flagstaff” because it’s the one current boundary that includes all nine communities.

A new brand was developed for “the Flagstaff Region” in 2015. Though spearheaded by the County, the brand initiative was always, and remains, dedicated to advancing the interests of all communities in the region. For this reason, the logo work adopted in that brand is not used on the Flagstaff County website; it will be used on region-based economic development and tourism websites that will be launched shortly to work to attract investment and tourism to the region.

For the region-based governance initiative, the regional visual identity was modified to incorporate the word “United” based on our belief that a sum can be greater than the parts in positioning all of our communities for a successful future.

Q: What does the next round of public engagement look like?

A: The exact schedule is yet to be worked out, but once the Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership (FIP) has developed a proposed single tier governance model (anticipated in the Spring), a Town Hall meeting will be held in each community. At these meetings, the governance model will be presented for residents to consider and provide feedback. The governance solution will be presented on this website with ability to provide online feedback via a short survey. There will be additional consultation with impacted organizations – like school board(s), Alberta Health Services, Flagstaff Regional Housing (seniors housing), etc. These organizations will have a couple of weeks to provide written feedback. All feedback will be incorporated into any further tweaking of a single tier governance model, which will then be presented to Council in each community in the region (timing to be determined based on the preceding work). Each Council will then vote on whether their community wishes to become part of a region-based governance solution.

Q: Are we doing this “regional governance thing” too fast?

A: No we don’t think so. Reality is that the Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership (FIP) has been implementing region-based solutions for more than a decade. What’s happening now is a natural extension of this foundation. The current process is now a year old and has us to the point where we need to develop a draft concept of single tier governance (which FIP is currently working on) so people can see what it looks like, ask questions, and/or raise issues that help refine the solution. Then it could turn into something people agree with and want implemented, or it could show people they don’t want it. Each municipality will ultimately decide this by a motion of Council. Our goal is to have a proposal ready for public consultation in late spring and if acceptable to communities, to have implementation in time for elections in the fall. If we need more time to come up with a workable proposal that timeline could be pushed back. Regardless, it’s important to remember that the point of all of this is to find ways and means, and models, that can help the region work better together and find ways to attract families and businesses, to ensure long term success. We believe it’s better to work toward a more ambitious destiny rather than accept fate of dwindling population and its many negative implications.

Q: Will all municipal employees have to re-apply for jobs if a new regional municipal entity is formed?

A: Forming a new municipality that potentially brings nine municipal entities together is not done simply with the stroke of a pen. This process takes time and there would be an adjustment period where people remain in positions until a new structure is worked out. There is a lot of work to merge together the bylaws, regulations, tax structures and utility rates, among other things. This entire exercise is being undertaken with the intent to pool efforts so the region can prepare and market itself to attract new businesses and families. There will be a lot of work reorganizing the new administration from nine into one, of course. That also means that not all of the same jobs will exist. The new organization will not need nine people to be responsible for bylaws. It may not need nine people to be responsible for utility notices either. However, the intent through this is to create new capacities as well – whether it’s a new aspect of public works/services/or economic development – which may create new jobs. We want people to be able to utilize their strengths and ability within the new organization. As such, the roles within a new organization will encounter change. We would not presume to “assign” people to a role, since they may not be interested in it or may want to apply for a new role. We haven’t worked out how it would work yet, but we anticipate transitioning in a way that allows employees to identify their strengths, skills and interests, and to pursue the new opportunities available.

Q: Who gave FIP the authority to proceed with the changes to our local government?

A: The Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership (FIP) is a body created by the municipalities in the Flagstaff Region. It has operated for many years to enhance the cooperation between its member municipalities. As such, FIP gets its authority from its member municipalities. At its last meeting in late 2016, FIP representatives from each municipality unanimously agreed that FIP set up a sub-committee to create a single tier model of governance for consideration by FIP members. This direction is the culmination of  almost a year of research into governance models and assessment of the sustainability of FIP-member communities. Once a model is created, each municipality will have to vote on whether they want to join the new model or not.

Q: Is this cemented in stone, or can the whole system be reviewed?

A. The model that is chosen and adopted by participating members should be reviewed at regular intervals to ensure it is effectively meeting the needs of the public. In fact, when a new model is chosen Municipal Affairs requires that a review be done after the first term in office to ensure the model is working effectively. Municipalities have the right to review their governance options and make changes to ensure they are effective. They simply need to explain to the Minister why they believe the changes would improve governance and make them more successful. FIP member municipalities have decided to explore governance options that focus attention on the opportunities for growing the region, before declining population and business trends reach a point that can’t be reversed. They are exploring models that will give their communities a better chance at success. They will still be able to make adaptions to the model in the future as needed. Ultimately, the goal is to create a model that helps to grow the population and businesses so services don’t decline and more communities aren’t forced to dissolve. As the world changes, the model will have to be adaptive to those changes. Your participating communities will have the ability to make changes as necessary.

Q: Is there an exit strategy?

A: It needs to be noted right up front that FIP can’t and won’t force any community into any new governance model. Once the new model is designed, individual municipalities will have to decide if they wish to participate or not. For those municipalities that want to participate in the new model there will not be an exit strategy expressly outlined. Any new model adopted must be given enough time to work out the kinks, and changed to improve its effectiveness. With an exit strategy outlined, a community may be easily tempted to pull out of the new model too quickly without giving it time to work out the kinks or to make appropriate changes. However, if circumstances are such that a new adopted model, given enough time and changes, still is not effective in its goals then a new model and new options can be discussed. There is nothing preventing the member communities from setting a new course or designing a new model. In fact, that is their prerogative. Two other things must be noted, however. First, reverting to the old model by exiting the new one isn’t a solution to the current challenges. Reverting to the old model will still not address the issues of a shrinking tax base, business community, population and services. Secondly, it has been made very clear through Bill 21’s changes to the Municipal Government Act, that status quo is not an option. It is evident the province would be open to new ideas and new solutions, but likely not see simply reverting to the old way of doing things as a solution. Throughout this process, the focus of FIP member municipalities is to craft a model that can be improved upon over time, and which focuses effort on growing the region by attracting new families and businesses so all communities can find enduring success and prosperity.

Q: Should the one governance model proceed, how would fair representation per community be determined and by whom? The County, or each community?

A: Before a single tier model could proceed, both community representatives and the public would want to see what the model would look like. This is why a subcommittee of the Flagstaff Intermunicipal Partnership has been set up to work on a model to present for consideration. There is one representative from each municipality on this committee. They are exploring various designs to come up with the most fair and most balanced model possible – one that will support localized representation, but encourage regional cooperation. They should be ready to present their model for public feedback early this spring.

Q: I heard all the services and staff will be moved into one community.

A: Offices would still be open in communities around the region, and services would not be consolidated into only one or a few communities because government’s job is to serve people in their communities. In fact, there will be exploration of how services could be enhanced or added in communities given this initiative is about trying to grow the region by attracting new families and businesses to our communities.

Q: I heard they’re going to eliminate all the town signs and take away the names of all the communities.

A: That will never happen. Even when communities dissolve they keep their name, which is why Strome is still Strome and always will be. In fact, in other places such as Fort McMurray, the municipality is actually called the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo but the community is still called Ft McMurray and always will be. Community names will always be important, and probably even more so as the entire region works on marketing itself more aggressively to draw in new families, businesses, and industries.

Q: What will this mean for our local tax structure given we already pay high taxes? What will this do to help the community grow?

A: Details such as taxation rates, service levels and merging of bylaws could take up to three years to finalize after a new governance model is implemented. It is fair to say that the process will look for efficiencies as a model looks to generate good value for money for services while positioning communities to grow. Doing nothing means taxes will get higher as fewer people pay for deteriorating infrastructure. Attracting families and investment is critical for softening each household’s tax burden.