Municipalities struggle with cost of absorbing towns

Deficit burdens | When a community dissolves, a bigger municipality must take over to provide services and fix infrastructure

EDMONTON — It’s the rural municipality equivalent of buying a house and a week later finding out the house needed major renovations.

When Camrose County absorbed the small village of New Norway a year ago, it knew the infrastructure was in need of repair, but it didn’t know how badly.

Ten days after taking control of the village, Alberta Environment sent Camrose County a letter demanding the municipality bring the water and waste water systems up to code, at a cost of $6 million.

“We were caught a bit flat footed,” said reeve Don Gregorwich.

Gregorwich recently supported a resolution at the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties convention that asked councillors to support a plan encouraging government to help cover infrastructure funding when a municipality is forced to absorb another municipality.

The resolution was overwhelmingly approved.

Rural municipalities across the province will struggle with the same financial problems as Alberta’s rural population continues to decline and towns and villages struggle to find money to pay for old services.

“A great many counties will find themselves in the same situation,” said Gregorwich.

Alberta’s population grows by about 100,000 people a year, but few want to move to rural communities with crumbling sidewalks and deteriorating water and sewer systems.

“These communities are suffering from a lack of funds to maintain themselves,” he said.

The provincial government has a $50,000 grant to assess problems in small towns when they are being absorbed, but extra money isn’t allocated to fix the problems.

Government officials point to Municipal Sustainability Initiative grants as ways to pay for repairs, but Gregorwich said his county’s MSI grants were already allocated to other projects. In the end, Camrose County borrowed the $6 million to make the necessary repairs and added the cost to local New Norway homes and businesses to be paid over the next 20 years.

Bruce Beattie, reeve of Mountain View County, said the municipality is going through the same process with the Village of Cremona. Instead of absorbing the village, Beattie said the county is working with the community to help it survive and stand on its own.

“There is no recognition of the in-frastructure deficit when absorbing villages,” Beattie said.

“The burden falls on the rural municipality. It is downloaded on the rural municipality.”

Six Alberta communities have dissolved into the surrounding municipalities in the past five years: Tilley to Newell County, New Norway to Camrose County, Derwent to the County of Two Hills, New Sarepta to Leduc County, Kinuso to the Municipal District of Big Lakes and Thorhild to Thorhild County.

The villages of Cremona and Minburn are going through a viability process to look at their future.

Residents of small communities who vote to dissolve often look at the surrounding county’s lower mill rate and lower taxes. When New Norway dissolved, Gregorwich said the county didn’t want to add the $6 million bill to existing county residents. However, the bill has to be paid.

Beattie said the bigger municipality can’t reject a decision to dissolve a community into the surrounding municipality.

“The absorbing municipality does not have a say in the matter. We have no ability to say no we don’t want it.”

Cremona’s viability discussions were put on hold until after the recent municipal elections, but Beattie believes the best option is to help small communities stay viable.

Mountain View County now provides office administration services, has taken over fire protection and helps out with library and recreation fees.

“We’d rather have towns and villages remain viable and their own community.”

Gregorwich said helping New Norway maintain its own community is also important for Camrose County.

“We recognize the New Norway community has been around for 100 years. They still have a tremendous amount of strength within the village boundaries and surrounding areas. That sense of community won’t go away.”

However, Beattie said that while the community won’t go away, the issue isn’t going to go away either.

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