EDITORIAL: Carrots win over sticks

Published on December 7, 2016

A photo taken from a promotional video by the P.E.I. government that introduces its move towards a new Municipal Government Act.

©TC MEDIA/P.E.I. government

There are both carrots and sticks for P.E.I.'s 73 municipalities in legislation tabled last week.

The new Municipal Government Act (MGA) will not ram changes down the throats of communities. But it’s clear where the province is headed – a major reduction in the number of municipal units – while giving those expanded communities the financial means to sustain themselves.

It’s about time that serious attention is given to amalgamation and regional co-operation that will strengthen and sustain rural communities. The act guides municipalities towards amalgamation through financial and other incentives.

Almost every community suffers from the same malaise – an aging core with restrictive boundaries, struggling to sustain schools, churches, stores, garages, fire departments and arenas.

Just outside community boundaries, new homes are built as people leave or move to avoid the higher taxes of the incorporated community. But they still enjoy services the community has to offer, such as fire coverage. Outside residents benefitted as the province plowed and maintained their roads and picked up garbage. It’s not fair.

Residents in unincorporated areas angrily object to any suggestions by communities to expand boundaries. The MGA does address this taxation issue. There will be flexibility for outside areas to be taxed at different rates to make amalgamation more palatable.

The biggest threat to rural P.E.I. is often from rural Islanders themselves. Small communities can’t sustain the increased burden of maintaining services without a wider tax base and surrounding areas are reluctant to help. It’s time the two sides get their act together and the MGA is there to facilitate.

Some local politicians are to blame for fanning ‘tribal’ fears for short-term political gain. It’s time they showed some leadership and take a public stand for common sense. Didn’t anyone learn the lessons from the Georgetown conferences, which called on rural P.E.I. to take the lead and save itself?

Under the MGA, there will be mandatory minimum services that all municipalities must provide. New regulations will cover elections, land use planning, municipal office hours, financial reporting, audits and budgets etc. It only makes sense that rural areas with similar interests and historical connections co-operate and work closer together.

There was some apprehension that changes would be forced upon Islanders or that amalgamation would be mandated through legislation. That’s not going to happen. While existing communities will be grandfathered in, any new municipalities must adhere to the new guidelines and thresholds to make them financially sustainable.

This legislation has broad support from the Federation of P.E.I. Municipalities and its membership, which were actively involved in debating and creating the MGA. The challenge is convincing residents to see the overall benefits as well.

The MGA stops short of using a sharp stick but the legislation still means big changes for small community councils, towns and villages across the Island. The aim is laudable - bringing local governments up to today’s standards of accountability and service. And it still leaves decision-making to local communities.

The carrots outnumber the sticks. The bill is long overdue.