As municipalities face increasingly stringent budgets — for countless reasons ranging from inflation, to industry shifts, to reduced provincial funding — it can be tempting to look for efficiencies internally, when the answer may be to look externally at where efficiencies can lead to community improvement.
Intermunicipal relationships may be more critical now than ever before. Stakeholders’ expectations keep growing, and municipal taxes can only be increased so much before hitting an affordability breaking point. Conversely, stagnant or reduced tax rates carry a livability breaking point, resulting in decreased service levels. Balance can be struck, though, through strategic municipal partnerships. The blueprint for this approach shifts from province to province, region to region, and municipality to municipality. There’s little room for ‘one size fits all’ methodology in local government, but the principles of good governance and organizational excellence remain relevant.
Some provinces have mandated Intermunicipal Collaboration Frameworks (ICF), while equivalent frameworks are encouraged elsewhere. In Alberta, mandated ICFs carry a series of general requirements:
Describe services provided that benefit residents in more than one of the partner municipalities;
Identify which municipality is responsible for providing these services;
Outline how these services will be provided and funded; and,
Outline a resolution process for any disputes that might occur between participating municipalities.
This mandated approach often means one municipality develops ICFs with numerous municipal partners. The County of Wetaskiwin, for example, has ICFs with nine bordering municipalities (we worked with the County in developing its ICF with the City of Wetaskiwin, seen here). Looking through a more focused lens, some intermunicipal frameworks relate to a specific area of mutual benefit; for example, we worked with the City of St. Albert in developing a Recreation ICF with neighbouring Sturgeon County.
Aside from official frameworks, there are numerous collaborative areas worth exploring. Recently, we were made aware of a situation in which two municipalities were seeing staff leave for ‘greener pastures,’ referring specifically to money. While we recommended integrating Succession Planning that might incentivize staff to stick around and move up within the organization, we also suggested that certain roles could be shared amongst municipalities. While this may not always be possible, there are instances in which it would be beneficial to have shared staff members (Human Resources or Legislative and Legal Services, for example). Despite decisions to be made on role capacity and the like, cost-sharing could mean the position carries a larger salary than either municipality could offer individually.
These processes can lead to efficiencies that don’t negatively impact residents, potentially creating savings without slashing the budget. The same approach can be taken when hiring external consultants for certain purposes. For example, following municipal elections, we deliver Council Orientations that can be catered to one municipality or to numerous organizations throughout a region through cost-sharing; in November 2021, we facilitated more than a dozen orientations for nearly 30 municipalities. That same principle can be extended to other areas of consultation, as well. Should the need for an Integrity Commissioner emerge, one could be shared on a retainer for a shared region. Similarly, suppose a municipality can’t afford third-party Strategic Planning. In that case, municipalities could team up for a regional plan, which could prove effective in moving all members forward in a concerted, symbiotic effort.
There are also isolated instances in which municipalities can collaborate on a shared project. For example, if a municipality updates its fleet or installs EV infrastructure, it makes sense to leverage cost-sharing opportunities regionally.
The adage of ‘Good, Fast or Cheap’ typically holds true. However, expecting all three is unsustainable — if it’s fast and good, it’s not cheap; if it’s good and cheap, it’s not fast; and if it’s fast and cheap, it’s not good. By leveraging relationships and creating opportunities through intermunicipal, you mitigate the gap between good, fast, and affordable.