The province has proposed new ways for cities to plan school sites and fund fire halls and so far, local leaders say they like what they see.
The province tabled amendments to the Municipal Government Act Tuesday. The act regulates how Alberta’s municipalities are run.
The new act is the first substantial overhaul of the MGA in decades. Among its many proposed changes are mandatory training and codes of conduct for council-members and mandatory funding and co-operation agreements for adjacent communities.
This week’s amendments make a number of technical tweaks to the bill and one significant change to its rules for offsite levies.
The original bill would have let municipalities charge offsite levies to fund fire halls, police stations, libraries, and rec-centres instead of just roads, sewers, and water pipes, but only if a developer received 30 per cent of the benefit of those facilities.
But if you’re a small town like Morinville with just one fire hall, there’s no way you’d have a development big enough to meet that 30 per cent threshold, said Morinville Mayor Lisa Holmes, who chairs the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. That meant the cost of new fire halls brought on by growth would continue to be born by all taxpayers, not the new ones who’d benefit from them.
“We said no, growth should partially pay for growth.”
St. Albert Coun. Cathy Heron, who sits on the AUMA’s board of directors, said she approved of this change, noting that it would help St. Albert pay for new recreational facilities.
“We’re looking at a (new) library and we’re going to need a new fire hall probably in the next few years,” Heron said, and this change means new residents, not just existing ones, will help pay for them.
Many new ideas
The province also released a discussion paper Tuesday featuring a slew of other ideas raised during this year’s public consultation on the MGA, some of which could be tabled as amendments next spring.
The paper suggests letting municipalities create voluntary funding and co-operation agreements with First Nations, for example, and charge higher taxes on intensive livestock operations. It also proposes letting communities share offsite levies for facilities that provide shared benefit.
Several proposals deal with school boards. One would require governments to enter joint-use agreements with boards regarding school sites, the use of sports fields and dispute resolution.
“School boards and municipalities all serve the same community,” said Alberta School Boards Association vice-president Mary Martin, and mandatory agreements would bring both parties together to discuss these issues.
Another would change how communities assemble land for schools.
Right now, governments can claim up to 10 per cent of the land in a development as municipal reserve, part of which is meant for schools, Heron said. But since that same reserve also has to house parks, utilities and other facilities, there’s often not enough reserve left for a school, particularly if the development itself isn’t very big.
St. Albert has struggled in recent years to find homes for new schools in part because it did not have sites big enough to fit them, which was due in part to this 10 per cent rule.
“We do not have a future school site big enough for a high school,” noted St. Albert Public board chair Glenys Edwards.
The paper proposes a “benefiting area contribution” rule as a solution.
Say you have many neighbourhoods in an area that needs a high school. Each developer offers 10 per cent of their land as reserve, but none of those chunks are big enough for the school.
This rule would let the local council draw a circle around all those neighbourhoods, pick one of them, and take more than 10 per cent of its land to create a site big enough for the school. The council would then charge the other developers in the circle money to compensate that neighbourhood’s developer.
While Edwards said she favoured the idea of a new process that would allow for bigger school sites, Catholic board superintendent David Keohane was more skeptical, and questioned how this would work if there were just one big developer in a region. Holmes said she wanted to see the province let governments take up to 15 per cent of a development as reserve in order to accommodate today’s bigger schools.
Holmes and Heron applauded a proposed change that would let councils create parental leave policies. Right now, councillors can only be absent from council for eight weeks before being disqualified from their job. If they need to be gone longer, say, to raise a newborn, they have to seek council approval, and not all councils are willing to give them that the time off.
“That does deter people, it is a barrier for them wanting to run for office before they’re finished having kids,” Holmes said. These policies will make councils family-friendly and let more people run for office if passed.
Holmes said she was disappointed that the paper did not propose any legislated replacement for Municipal Sustainability Initiative funding.
“Right now, we’re at the will of whatever the government of the day decides to give us during their budget process,” she said, which makes municipal budgets (which are written months prior to the province’s) difficult.
Heron said she approved of a proposal to add environmental stewardship to the list of purposes for a municipality (which currently includes providing good governance, services and safe communities), as it would explicitly authorize councils to write laws to protect the environment. She wasn’t sure how this would affect St. Albert, however, as it was already doing a lot on that front.
“We’re a step ahead of the province on this one.”
The province has asked residents to comment on the proposed changes by January 31 through an online survey.
The discussion paper and survey can be found at mgareview.alberta.ca/get-involved.