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Mayor Column - November 21, 2014

City building relationship with Province, new Premier

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice’s visit to Lethbridge last week provided a welcome opportunity to begin developing a positive relationship with our new provincial leader and to advocate on behalf of our community on several important issues.

Those issues included capital funding programs, the local effects of cuts to provincial programs and the arts, our ongoing collaboration on regional EMS dispatch, opportunities for regional cooperation and decision making, mutual priorities, and the status of the Municipal Government Act review.

The City of Lethbridge is seeking confirmation of the Province’s long-term commitment to funding support for capital infrastructure investment needs. A regional convention centre, a performing arts centre, and a third bridge were all discussed.

The Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI), the Gas Tax Fund (GTF) and the Building Canada Fund (BCF) have been key components of Lethbridge strategies to maintain basic community infrastructure and to meet the needs of the growing community. We requested flexibility in these programs to allow individual communities to select infrastructure projects which address local priorities.

We are concerned that the new Building Canada Fund targets only infrastructure maintenance. It appears communities like Lethbridge, with strong maintenance programs, will not benefit from the new BCF. We are also concerned that while federal BCF funding has been announced, the required matching funding from the Province has not yet followed.

Freezes or declines in funding for a variety of provincial programs are having a detrimental effect at the community level. Numerous social service, seniors, educational and arts agencies that have historically relied on provincial programs are increasingly turning to our municipality seeking help to address their respective funding crises. This is creating significant budget pressures that effectively download onto our municipality the cost of programs that are historically in provincial jurisdiction.

This year, City Council has received presentations from numerous community organizations requesting municipal funding to help them offset losses or freezes in provincial funding. These organizations include 5th on 5th Youth Services, Nord-Bridge Seniors Centre, Southern Alberta Art Gallery, New West Theatre Society, Lethbridge Symphony, Social Housing in Action, and Mediatheque French-language library,

In addition, federal funding for local Aboriginal organizations has been severely cut back, and the application process for urban Aboriginal funding support has changed. Local organizations such as the Aboriginal Council of Lethbridge and the Sik-Ooh-Kotoki Friendship Society were forced to close their doors. As a result, support services to urban Aboriginal citizens of Lethbridge have been reduced.

We on City Council share the province-wide concern about the freeze in provincial funding for Family and Child Social Services (FCSS) programs that has been in place since 2009. FCSS-funded organizations funded have struggled to absorb or stave off inflationary pressures the past five years but now face the very real prospect of scaling back services while the need for supports and services continues to grow. Our Premier stated that increased FCSS funding would be difficult in an era of $70-per-barrel oil.

The new Ground Ambulance Agreement between the City of Lethbridge and Alberta Health Services is an example of collaboration resulting in a regional solution that meets the needs of the Province, the City of Lethbridge and our regional communities. Similar collaboration is occurring toward a regional satellite EMS dispatch centre based in Lethbridge, and progress is being made between the City and AHS on logistic and technological solutions required. These initiatives are excellent examples of outcome-based regional decision making as articulated in the Premier’s mandate to the Minister of Health.

Two areas of opportunity for Lethbridge have emerged through the development of City Council’s strategic plan. The first is tourism and the other is digital infrastructure as the foundation for innovation and growth.

The City has formed a committee to spearhead the development of a strategic tourism plan for the Lethbridge area that is complementary and supportive of tourism in southwest Alberta. This plan is expected to identify gaps in infrastructure, programs, services and marketing of visitor services in this area. Council recognizes the opportunity that this important sector might provide to our local economy.

As the Province continues to strive for improved rural access to digital bandwidth, the City of Lethbridge is eager to see that effort extended to mid-sized cities like Lethbridge that may also be underserved by current private-sector providers.

Lastly, we told Premier Prentice that we believe the Municipal Government Act is largely a very good piece of legislation, and that we appreciate opportunities to dialogue with the provincial government on any fine tuning of the MGA that is contemplated.

The City of Lethbridge has proposed a potential solution on the issue of urban oil and gas drilling which was recently endorsed by the Alberta Association of Urban Municipalities. Our solution proposes changes to the MGA which would grant municipalities a formal say on resource drilling applications within their urban boundaries.

Specifically, our proposed solution calls for amendments to sections of the MGA which currently allow resource drilling applications to override existing municipal land-use designations at the exclusive discretion of the Alberta Energy Regulator. We see our proposal as a potential compromise which acknowledges the importance of resource development to our province while recognizing local community values.
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This week, Council continued its work deliberating a new four-year operating budget. We began the process by tasking our administration to provide more detail regarding department spending, innovation, efficiencies achieved, and metrics that are indicators of each department’s success. The presentations were followed by thorough questioning by Council members sitting as Finance Committee. The purpose of these discussions was to ensure that taxpayers are getting value for their dollars.

An important direction within the budget is the strategy for recycling in our city. Again, the cost factor is one that will be seriously considered by Council.

I can tell you that City Council takes seriously our responsibility for controlling costs and future tax increases. The final budget will be referred for approval at the City Council meeting on Nov. 24 or possibly Dec. 8, depending on the progress of our deliberations.

Mayor Chris Spearman

November 21, 2014