Alberta cities and towns face challenges due to population and employment issues

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A new research paper from the University of Calgary says Alberta’s villages and small cities face serious fiscal challenges, but suggests Alberta’s case-by-case way of helping struggling municipalities deal with their problems is appropriate.

Smaller municipalities have seen their populations stagnate or decline as job opportunities and young people leave for larger cities, and they also face low birth rates and the attraction of big cities for immigrants seeking to settle in the province, he says. the document entitled “Feasibility assessment”. of smaller municipalities: the Alberta model.

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“Given the nature of the changes in both our population and our economy, it has become more difficult for smaller cities and towns to sustain themselves over time,” said Kevin McQuillan, a researcher at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy. and one of the authors of the study.

The research paper, released Tuesday, says the “vast majority” of Alberta’s 332 municipalities are in good financial shape. To help struggling municipalities, the Alberta government uses municipal viability reviews, which address the situation on a case-by-case basis. A total of 26 municipalities have undergone reviews and half (13) have voted to dissolve and become villages in their counties or municipal districts. Three feasibility reviews are currently underway, for the towns of Delia and Bittern Lake, and for the summer town of Ma-Me-O-Beach.

“(The feasibility review process) is a pretty distinctive way of addressing an issue that we see across Canada and also in other countries, in England and parts of Europe, in Australia,” McQuillan said.

Many of the struggling municipalities have a declining and aging population. Among the cities that the province has analyzed, only one grew in population between 2016 and 2021, says the research work. Most of the villages analyzed experienced a drop in their population, and in nine communities the average age of the population was over 50, it says.

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A review is sometimes requested by city council or sometimes initiated by Alberta Municipal Affairs, McQuillan said. He said local residents have quite a bit of input during the process, which ends in a referendum to see whether the community’s residents dissolve as an independent municipality or continue to deal with issues raised during the viability review.

“The idea of ​​allowing community voting and certainly encouraging participation is a good one, but it poses some problems if a community decides, ‘No, we don’t want to disband,’ but the problems remain and may even be resolved. it gets worse over time,” McQuillan said.

He added that calls into question whether there needs to be any other direction the Alberta government could take to order the municipality to be dissolved or reorganized in some way.

While Alberta hasn’t run into those types of problems yet, there are some communities that have decided to remain independent but continue to face issues like a declining and aging population and infrastructure deficits, McQuillan said.

Emotion also plays a role in some residents’ preference to maintain their community’s municipal status; some have lived in their community for many years and have ties to the community that go back several generations, McQuillan said. She recalled being told by a local official that the community was named after the person’s great-grandfather.

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“It’s worrying for them to see it weaken and dissolve and lose its status as a town or city,” he said.

But even if a community dissolves, it is not a “panacea,” the article’s authors point out, and simply transfers the municipality’s problems to the rural municipality that absorbs them. This is a concern for the rural municipality, particularly in situations where there is a large backlog of infrastructure projects that need to be addressed, McQuillan said.

“How much help will they get if they are suddenly forced to take on a responsibility that has been dissolved?” he said.

Deborah Reid-Mickler, v.Alberta Municipalities Summer Towns and Villages Chairperson said most smaller towns and villages are like small community businesses, like restaurants, that operate on very small margins.

“Basically, we’re looking to balance (the budget) and we operate on very thin, tight margins all the time, and that means it only takes one small thing to upset the balance,” said Reid-Mickler, who is also the directorDeputy mayor of the southern Alberta village of Duchess, which has a population of approximately 1,100.

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The rising costs of infrastructure projects are leaving smaller communities “out of the market,” he said.

“Even with the funding we received, we are waiting years before anything can be done on a major front,” Reid-Mickler said.

Alberta’s 2024 budget includes $724 million through a new program, the Local Government Fiscal Framework, for municipal infrastructure projects. The government would provide a total of $2.4 billion over three years, but Alberta Municipalities Chairman Tyler Gandam has said that The organization wanted more than a billion dollars more. than promised in the budget.

An official from the village of Champion, a southern Alberta community that underwent a municipal review and maintained its municipal status, said every municipality in Alberta has infrastructure problems.

“I don’t think there is any municipality in the province that doesn’t have infrastructure concerns in terms of funding and the infrastructure deficit that has been building up over the years,” he said. Derek Kwiatkowski, the people Chief administrative officer.

The economy has changed dramatically since Alberta’s villages and small towns were established, he said Kwiatkowski, and the town he leads was incorporated as a town in 1911..

“A lot of places haven’t followed that trend,” he said. Kwiatkowski.

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