For decades now, we’ve watched as Saskatchewan’s population has slowly shifted from our towns and villages into our cities, and particularly our largest cities, and their immediate surrounding areas. This causes strains for both the smaller municipalities, who may find themselves in a spiral of decreased businesses and services that lead to further population decreases, and for the larger municipalities, who must struggle to provide additional services for a larger population—some of whom don’t actually live and pay property taxes within that municipality.
There is no silver bullet, no perfect solution to this problem—but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. Enter the Municipal Symposium. This August, the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) invited members from the cities, towns, villages, resort villages, and northern municipalities that it represents to take part in a thought experiment: what problems are municipalities going to face in the next 20 years, and what can we do to begin solving them now?
With a general theme of economic development, the 60 members in attendance heard from three panels: one each on governance, infrastructure, and public safety. Following each of the panels, the participants were tasked with answering four questions, related to the topic: what is working and making a difference; what isn’t working but could make a difference if it was; what is missing that could make a difference if it was provided; and what is technically working, but not making any difference?
A number of themes became very apparent, as attendees began answering questions. What’s working is cooperation and communication—we just need more of it. Regional economic development initiatives, tax sharing agreements, service agreements, and hub-style coordination for municipalities, enforcement agencies, health and social service agencies are all proving themselves incredibly valuable—but we can always use more of them. The more we close ourselves off, the more municipalities, service providers and other orders of government approach matters with an “us versus them” attitude, the worse the outcome. It takes active cooperation, communication, and an effort to understand and work with others toward the best results to bring those results to fruition.
Attendees also noted that we need better financial planning, more education and tools, increased capacity, and we need investments from other orders of government, not more downloading of responsibilities. Our municipalities are on the front lines of service delivery, economic development, infrastructure creation, and enforcement, yet we have very little ability to generate income outside of property taxes, no control over regional services, such as the provincial court system, and no direct say in provincial or federal funding priorities, or in the development of legislation that directly affects us.
So, where do we go from here? How do we get the initiatives that we need moving, and how do we sidestep the problems that we see either right in front of us, or coming far down the road? The final report on the symposium is still being written, and will no doubt offer us a path to walk, but the core of it is simple: we must build on our strengths. Certainly, that means advocating other orders of government for change and flexing our advocacy muscles, but more importantly, it’s going to require us to build on the communication and cooperation that we already see benefits from. Regional economic development, tax-sharing agreements, and regionalized services will provide us with the tools that we need to maintain and grow.
We can no longer afford to be odds, or to go it alone; the only way forward is the one that we make together.