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As small towns fight to survive, researchers assess Alberta's strategy to keep them alive, or let them fold

In 2019, residents voted to dissolve the Town of Granum. It was absorbed into the Municipal District of Willow Creek. Researchers at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy say Alberta's viability review approach works well compared to provinces like Manitoba and New Brunswick. (Oseremen Irete/CBC - image credit)
In 2019, residents voted to dissolve the Town of Granum. It was absorbed into the Municipal District of Willow Creek. Researchers at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy say Alberta's viability review approach works well compared to provinces like Manitoba and New Brunswick. (Oseremen Irete/CBC - image credit)

As concerns grow over the viability of some of Alberta's small municipalities, a new University of Calgary School of Public Policy report suggests that the provincial government is taking the right approach to assessing whether a town or village can survive.

However, its authors say there are opportunities for the province to make improvements to get ahead of the problem, and to better support municipalities that absorb dissolved towns.

Unlike other provinces, the Alberta government conducts in-depth reviews into the viability of municipalities on a case-by-case basis; these can be requested by council, petitioned by citizens, or initiated by the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

The reviews eventually lead to a public vote on whether the municipality should make necessary changes to remain viable, or if it should dissolve and become part of a neighbouring municipality.

"Our feeling is that it's a good process because it puts the decision in the hands of the residents themselves," said co-author and research fellow Kevin McQuillan.

"The only question it raises, I think, is what if the problem continues to get worse? What happens further down the road? I think that's a question that both communities and probably the province will have to think about more in the future."

The Hamlet of Grande Cache in West-Central Alberta used to be a town — until it was dissolved in 2019. It is now part of the Municipal District of Greenview. (CBC)

McQuillan said most of Alberta's municipalities are in good financial shape. But some communities are struggling with rising costs as their populations age and decline.

Even though record numbers of people are moving to Alberta, they tend to go to larger cities, he said.

According to the report, the province has conducted 26 viability reviews since the process was introduced in 2012. Of those, 13 municipalities voted to dissolve.

Meanwhile, three Alberta municipalities are currently undergoing reviews: the Village of Delia, Village of Bittern Lake and Summer Village of Ma-Me-O Beach.

Post-dissolution impacts

It's an issue the Rural Municipalities of Alberta is paying close attention to.

President Paul McLauchlin, who's also a reeve of Ponoka County, said many of Alberta's small municipalities are struggling to address deteriorating infrastructure due to a lack of funding.

"Everyone's trying to make do with what they have," said McLauchlin. "In the long run, we're going to run into extreme viability problems right across the board, all throughout Alberta."

The organization recently completed a study on the impacts of dissolving municipalities — like the former Town of Granum and Village of Hythe — on the municipalities that absorbed them.

Ponoka County reeve and Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin says the Alberta Energy Regulator should be taking more steps to prevent companies that haven't paid their taxes from operating oil and gas operations in the province.
Ponoka County reeve and Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin says the Alberta Energy Regulator should be taking more steps to prevent companies that haven't paid their taxes from operating oil and gas operations in the province.

Ponoka County reeve and Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin. (Emilio Avalos/Radio-Canada)

McLauchlin said a key concern is that absorbing communities take on the liabilities of the municipality that folded, which is expensive and can put strain on the receiving municipality.

He said, at the end of the day, it's an asset management conversation.

"More modern infrastructure and ensuring that they're managing their assets, that would be the first step that would move this whole entire file forward significantly, and probably make communities that are not viable now able to take on the demands in the future," he said.

The organization's report also recommends increased funding from the province for receiving communities to support the transition, and help with issues that arise post-dissolution.

Policy recommendations

McQuillan said he recognizes rural municipalities' worries that they can become responsible for a community and its challenges, even when they weren't involved in the voting process.

"It's why I feel one of the most important things for the future is for the province, for the communities, but also for the municipal districts or counties which will absorb any of the dissolved municipalities, to really get together and talk about how this process can work," he said.

The report says the extra costs faced by the receiving municipality must become a priority for the province to address.

The authors also recommend that the province pay closer attention to struggling municipalities that haven't requested a viability review, and to develop action plans should problems continue to accumulate after a dissolution.

McQuillan said viability reviews are a good process that communities shouldn't be afraid of.

"I think it can be a positive process," said McQuillan.

"But I don't think we can simply avoid some of these situations. I think when we have communities across the province where we see the population is declining and getting older, where we see their tax rates are creeping up because they're trying to respond to some of the local financial challenges — we should be ready to undergo these reviews."