You know the term "when life gives you lemons make lemonade". I wonder though, what if you don't like lemonade, then what? I suppose you could still make lemonade and find someone to share it with. You could also make the lemonade with the thought of selling it for a profit and turning that profit into something positive?
I heard an AJR song the other day and a lyric struck a chord with me. "If life gives you lemonade at least it gave you something." An interesting spin on the saying. I take this in the positive. Yes, at least you got something. Now make the most of what you got.
This brings me to my biggest client cohort right now. Municipalities. Tough times right now and into the foreseeable future. The Provincial government is into full austerity mode. And, if you were not aware, legislation suggests that the relationship between the Province and municipalities is a parent-child relationship. Literally, a municipality exists at the whim of the Province and the Province dictates what is required from the municipality as far as services delivered as well as many, many more rules, regulations around service delivery.
The current landscape is such that the Province is cutting back funds given to municipalities to deliver these services, they are providing little to no support in assistance to collect taxes from abandoned well sites (I will not even get into the liability issues here), expecting municipalities to pay for services that were previously provided by the Province and increasing the education requisition on municipal tax bills (collected by municipalities for free on behalf of the Province). These are just a few of the challenges being faced by municipalities as a direct result of decisions made by the Province (the parent).
What to do?
Here is the choice I suggest in the title - Be bitter or Be better.
Municipalities could choose to be bitter and complain loudly about these injustices. Now, I think the facts need to be shared with the public, for certain. There is nothing wrong with trying to receive some empathy from your public. They need to understand the challenges being faced right now. However, I would suggest that there needs to be limits placed on this effort due to the amount of sympathy you might get in return as well as the limited effectiveness of having any impact on the actions taken by the Province.
More effort should be made in the other option - Be better.
Back to the beginning of the blog. At least we got lemons. It is true that municipalities are facing legitimate challenges on the revenue side of their ledger. Provincial legislation also does not allow for running a deficit. Costs are unlikely to go down for services being delivered. However, the fact of the matter is you are still receiving taxes from citizens and businesses for the provision of services and you have much discretion on what those services are and the level at which they are delivered.
I was asked to speak at a recent Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) conference. During that session I shared that if one added the operating budgets of the top 6 populated municipalities in Alberta it is over $8 billion dollars. I understand that the top 6 municipalities include a vast majority of Albertans and this is a lot of people. However, I feel that much effort goes into trying to substantiate adding more tax dollars to provide services due to increased costs rather than starting with the $8 billion dollars and applying lenses like relevancy to supporting citizen needs, driving strategic goals/results, a scan of other possible service delivery agents and value creation by reallocating or repurposing current resources.
Municipalities actually have an amazing opportunity to grab a leadership role in Governance. They wear a citizen hat much tighter than other orders of government, are not tainted by any partisan decision making (yet...) and although the Province dictates what services they must deliver, that list is very slim.
An effort can and should be made to ask citizens what services, currently being provided, are the most meaningful to them. Those areas deemed most meaningful or valuable should be supported with a reallocation of resources from areas on the bottom of the value scale. Th is reallocation and/or repurposing will assist greatly in addressing the shortfalls in revenue from the Province as well as greatly improve the narrative you will have with your public. We are looking to maximize the return to citizens on their investment in community service delivery.
I get it. This is a big departure from current realities in municipal administration. We know what we know. But, l have been using the term "never waste a good crisis" with clients lately. We must demonstrate some resiliency right now. Things are not likely to change in the near future. The Province will continue to cut until perhaps the last year of their current mandate.
Approach this new way of thinking from a continuous improvement perspective. We should always be looking to Be better. It is just that now it seems more necessary than ever before. You are likely to find out a lot about the staff you have especially at the leadership or executive level. Any push back on this effort needs to be questioned. Who can't get on board with a Be Better effort?
I do hope this helps you out in some way. I believe strongly in municipal governance. We can do this!