Alberta municipalities hopeful for change under Prentice

EDMONTON – Patience isn’t the virtue that transformed Helen Rice into Alberta’s longest serving city councillor.

Better known for her candour, the Grande Prairie-based president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association told a roomful of delegates Wednesday that she’s hopeful Premier Jim Prentice will act on perennial problems facing Alberta’s communities.

During the summer’s PC leadership race, Prentice told Rice the “days of endless discussion are over� and that bureaucrats who couldn’t bring about change would have to go.

“He’s made his point, these guys don’t have the job security they used to,� said Rice, 69, first elected to Grande Prairie council in 1979. “He’s the kind of guy you either jump on his train or you’ll get run over.�

AUMA represents 86 per cent of the province’s population, acting as an advocate for large urban centres to small summer villages. The annual AUMA convention is at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre this week, featuring guest speakers and education sessions. Municipalities debate resolutions to take to the provincial government, and on Thursday morning, will grill 16 cabinet ministers in a series of question-and-answer sessions.

Two special time-sensitive resolutions are being tabled this year. Red Deer is asking for an Alberta-wide exemption for the recent changes in Canada’s temporary foreign worker program. Lethbridge is bringing in another proposal on urban drilling.

On Wednesday afternoon, delegates passed several proposals, including one from Cold Lake and four other municipalities asking the province for financial incentives to encourage amalgamation. A resolution from the City of Brooks asked the province for $1.5 billion in unconditional transfers to be raised by a one- per-cent income tax hike.

In the aftermath of anonymous attack ads during the 2013 civic election, St. Albert successfully brought a resolution urging stronger election finance rules. The rules would theoretically force outsiders who buy attack ads to publicly identify themselves.

The convention will also continue AUMA discussions with the province on an overhaul of the Municipal Government Act, the key law governing cities, towns, villages and counties.

At her morning session, Rice was asked about possible changes to allow municipalities revenue generating tools other than property taxes. The AUMA wants to make local councils less dependent on criteria and approvals from the province, which hasn’t offered new funding programs since the Stelmach era.

Rice sees hope in Diana McQueen, a former mayor and vice-president of the AUMA, who was Prentice’s pick as minister of municipal affairs, McQueen is the fourth person to hold the post in the past year.

“She doesn’t play games, she’ll tell you to your face if she doesn’t agree with you, but give you the opportunity to change her mind,� Rice said.

McQueen has spoken of competing priorities and hasn’t given notice she’ll loosen government purse strings. She has promised to review city charters and continue the revision of the MGA.

Discussions on that front took a leap forward this summer, Rice said, when 54 points of disagreement were split into groups of 20. In the first two-hour meeting with the province, they agreed on 17 points. After years of frustration, it’s an encouraging start, Rice said.

“The wheels grind slowly and I’m not noted for my patience,� said Rice. “(Prentice) is a guy that could coast, that said ‘I sincerely believe change has to be made.’�

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