Municipal leader wants a new fiscal framework to be a top priority for government in coming year
© Beacon file photo
MUNICIPAL PROVINCE — Gander MHA and Minister of Municipal Affairs Kevin O’Brien, left, chatted with Grand Falls-Windsor Mayor Allan Hawkins, centre, and Churence Rogers, president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador during a municipal symposium held in Gander in May.
Churence Rogers thinks the provincial government is spending too much time talking about Muskrat Falls, and not enough time dealing with ongoing concerns in municipalities around this province.
The president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador said while he understands the multi-billion dollar power project is a priority for the Progressive Conservative caucus, there are other issues being faced in communities every day that have nothing to do with electricity.
“What we’re going to be seeing happening in the next year, in the next few years, is municipalities struggling to find ways to be in compliance with new federal regulations related to wastewater treatment,” said Rogers in a year-end interview. “Many municipal leaders are unsure how they’re going to get ready, what they need to do to get ready, and especially what it’s all going to cost.”
Money is key to successful municipal management, Rogers has said, and over the course of the past year, one of the most important files MNL had on its agenda was the ongoing effort to get the provincial government to engage in a discussion about the establishment of a new fiscal framework.
“I’ve been in municipal government for almost two decades, and during that time I’ve watched the fiscal condition of municipalities get weaker and weaker,” he said. “There were a variety of reasons for this decline — the reduction in municipal operating grants, the decline of local tax bases, aging infrastructure, and increased standards.
“And over the past two decades, municipalities have been encouraged or funded to pursue a variety of solutions — regionalization, gas tax funding, and cost share capital works projects — that have in some ways helped, but which have not come close to addressing the real fiscal problems affecting municipalities.”
Rogers said the case for fiscal sustainability, and the role the provincial government must play in the process, because a major focus for MNL in the months following the delivery of an independent consultant’s report in the fall of 2011. It was also the foundation for a speech he gave during MNL’s annual general meeting in Gander this past October. Not only did Mr. Rogers have the ears of municipal leaders from around Newfoundland and Labrador, his talk was given in front of government officials such as Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien and Premier Kathy Dunderdale.
“This has been my, and the MNL board’s, top priority,” he said. “We released the Wade Locke report on municipal finance, and this garnered much attention and a bit of controversy. We commissioned Dr. Locke to write this report, not to launch MNL’s position that we want a share of the income tax or sales tax, but just to show that small changes in provincial tax policy can have a major impact on municipal finances.
“The provincial government may not have liked the work of Dr. Locke, but the provincial government could not ignore the common voice of the municipal sector. And in March of this year, when it was apparent that the needs of municipalities were not going to be addressed in the budget, we convened an emergency meeting of the MNL membership, and many answered the call. With the voices of over a hundred municipalities, we placed the provincial government on notice that the status quo was no longer acceptable, and that we will do everything in our collective power to achieve a better, secure, and sustainable fiscal environment for all municipalities.”
Rogers said although no definitive plan was put in place, he was pleased with the understanding the meeting was somewhat productive.
“Our collective voice helped ensure that municipal operating grant levels remained consistent with the intended one-year increase of 2011,” he said. “That’s an important step, but there are many more to take.”
Rogers, who is also mayor of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, said municipalities going to be working on how to continue to generate the necessary tax revenue to operate their communities, especially given the costs that have cropped up over the past year.
“We had municipalities that had to include tax increases, or tax levies, in their 2012 budgets in order to cover off the cost of waste management,” he said, referring to the fact the province introduced legislation earlier this year that resulted in the closure of municipal landfills and the beginning of operations at the Central Newfoundland Waste Management site in Norris Arm. “In my municipality of Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, I’m pleased to say we actually spent less on waste management than we thought we were going to have to, although that wasn’t the case for many other municipalities.”
In recent months, property value assessments have risen sharply in many municipalities — in Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, the values of residential property went up by 55 per cent; in Gander, they increased 25 per cent. The increased values allowed most municipalities to lower their mil rates, while still ensuring they will generate enough tax revenue in 2013 to maintain balanced budgets.
“There are many challenges facing our communities,” Rogers said. “There will be a lot of things on our agenda over the course of the next year that will be important for communities throughout this province. We are undertaking this difficult task for all municipalities.
“I do not know what a new fiscal framework will look like, but MNL will not let this issue rest until we have created a framework that will build a more sustainable municipal system.”