By Trevor Busch
Local municipalities compare favourably with their Alberta neighbours in a recent study of operational spending numbers from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).
In their Alberta Municipal Spending Watch Report released in late 2019 which tracks trends between 2007 and 2017, the CFIB’s analysts determined Alberta’s municipal real operating spending has grown by 56.1 per cent, while population grew by an average of only 22.6 per cent.
In Taber, population growth grew by 11 per cent between 2007 and 2017, while real operating spending grew by 45 per cent. In the M.D. of Taber during the same time period, population grew by 14 per cent while real operating spending also grew by a corresponding 14 per cent. Taber shows per capita spending at $2,239, while the M.D. is slightly higher at $2,346.
“I’m just looking a little beyond that as far as where the rankings come in,” said Mayor Andrew Prokop. “We ended up 71st out of 182, on the better side of average. To me, if you’re in the average or better you’re doing alright, all things considered.”
Cochrane, Okotoks, and Lloydminster were the three best performing municipalities in terms of sustainable spending patterns, while the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Fort McMurray), Strathcona County, and Grande Prairie were the worst performers.
Many factors have contributed to the town’s growth in overall operational spending since 2007, contends Prokop, while highlighting a need to strike the right balance.
“Sometimes things like that are hard to monitor throughout, as any council does their due diligence, and does their best to maintain their spending restrictions and responsible spending for different things that are required. Obviously going forward we’ll see priority-related items, and try to find a balance on how to spend those required funds, some of which are provincial grant involved and some are not, some are tax based. But overall, it’s one continuous process that requires balances, and requires some fiscal responsibility and money management to deal with all that. And there’s a lot of areas that are involved there, and this report is over a 10-year period as well. I think if nothing else it shows some consistency for us as the Town of Taber, as our municipality. To me, I’m happy to say that we’re on the upside of average. I think that’s definitely a positive.”
Prokop took issue with the comparative nature of the CFIB’s study and the complexities involved in attempting to compare diverse municipalities in the province on an even keel. In Taber, Prokop highlighted the existence of the Taber Police Service as a significant component involved in municipal spending figures which would be difficult to compare evenly with other municipalities of a similar size that don’t maintain their own force.
“Overall — comparing apples to apples — it’s really not. That’s what I have a problem with overall, is when they’re trying to suggest it’s on an equal and level playing field, but it’s not. There’s more things — recreation and policing are huge for us with what we end up spending — and the M.D. doesn’t have the same kind of requirements. They just don’t. If you look at those I think we’re in the neighborhood of $3 million for policing, and $3 million for recreation. If you look at the M.D. of Taber, there’s far less than that, right around the $150,000 range for recreation…so how do you compare that? It’s just so difficult. That’s part of why it’s not on an equal and level playing field, like they try to maintain. It’s just not.”
Recommendations for municipalities from the report includes limiting operating spending, engaging in sustainable spending practices, implementing appropriate contingency funds for natural disasters, pursuing reforms to employee compensation systems, better control over the number of municipal employees, and developing consistent definitions for full time employees.
Judging by the numbers, Prokop doesn’t believe the report suggests the town needs to show more fiscal restraint in operational spending going forward.
“Not really. I think with what is going on right now in the province, I think we’re on top of that. We’re doing that now, not beyond. I think we always did, for the most part, try to be financially responsible in all areas, following recommendations through administrative investigations as best we can. If there’s questions to be asked, you ask those hard questions, and tough questions, and make sure we’re getting the proper answer before those decisions are made. I think administration is very cognizant of what’s going on in those areas as well, and keep us up to speed on what we need to be aware of to make those good decisions. These are point of interest kinds of reports. I think it has some merit. But for the most part, if you’re in the average or above — which we are — I’m happy with that.”
One of the report’s key findings suggests that municipalities have a lot of work to do in limiting the growth of their work force and preventing the escalation of wage rates.
“For many municipalities, part of their over-spending problem is the result of expanding the municipal workforce much faster than population growth and increasing municipal wages well beyond the private sector average,” reads a statement in the report.
Other municipalities in the region were part of the CFIB’s 2007-2017 report card, including the County of Warner (two per cent population growth, 22 per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $2,137), Town of Vauxhall (14 per cent population growth, 16 per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $1,914), County of Newell (10 per cent population growth, 108 per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $6,748), Lethbridge County (zero per cent population growth, -10 per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $1,910), County of Forty Mile (five per cent population growth, eight per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $2,579), Town of Coaldale (33 per cent population growth, 77 per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $1,676), and the Town of Bow Island (nine per cent population growth, 53 per cent growth in real operating spending, per capita $1,499).