Beyond the big cities: Alberta's mid-sized municipalities seeking recognition, collaboration

The mayors of municipalities with greater than 15,000 people — like Mayor Jeff Genung of Cochrane, Alta. — are organizing for more collaboration with the province. (Google Maps - image credit)
The mayors of municipalities with greater than 15,000 people — like Mayor Jeff Genung of Cochrane, Alta. — are organizing for more collaboration with the province. (Google Maps - image credit)

A group of mayors from Alberta's mid-sized cities want to ensure they are not forgotten in the upcoming election.

The Alberta Mid-Sized Cities Mayors' Caucus is made up of 24 members. In recent years it has made a more concerted effort to have its voice heard by provincial and federal governments.

Cochrane Mayor Jeff Genung and chair of the caucus says together the member municipalities represent more than one million Albertans.

"We feel like we are the third largest city in the province, that's kind of how we refer to ourselves," he told CBC News in an interview.

Genung said the mid-sized cities, which are defined as having a population over 15,000 outside of Edmonton and Calgary, have unique needs. Some of their shared priorities will sound familiar to many throughout the province: emergency services, health care, and transit.

But what is different is how those issues play out, especially when it comes to funding.

Genung said one example was the Municipal Sustainability Initiative, a pot of provincial funding for municipalities, which was not keeping up with growth. Cochrane grew from around 20,000 people 10 years ago to 34,000 today.

He said MSI's replacement, the Local Government Fiscal Framework, would have also initially meant a decrease in funding for some municipalities like Cochrane.

The province assuaged those fears when it promised no municipality would see a decrease in funding when the LGFF is implemented next year. But formulas are still divided into two broad categories: Edmonton/Calgary and everywhere else.

"We'd like to, in a perfect world, have an agreement with the province where they look at mid-sized as a different group altogether," Genung said.

Jeff Genung
Jeff Genung

In March, the caucus met with UCP Leader Danielle Smith, NDP Leader Rachel Notley, and Alberta Party Leader Barry Morishita. A news release called on provincial party leaders to commit to developing a framework to ensure mid-sized communities can work in partnership with the province.

Genung said the caucus, which meets about once a month, will be closely watching this election.

"When we hear or see something that we need to align with or that aligns with our priorities and needs, we will reward and give credit where credit is due," he said.

"But we'll also be advocating strongly for the needs of our communities."

Grande Prairie Mayor Jackie Clayton said the caucus has started to have valuable conversations with provincial and federal officials and those need to continue.

She said mid-sized cities have some of the same needs as big cities — services like mental health supports — but can sometimes be lost in the conversation.

"It's really important to recognize that many cities … are unique but they are collaborative in their approach," she said.

"They want to find solutions with the government, and because the growth of mid-sized cities is essential for the growth of our province."

'Developmental space'

Lars Hallstrom, professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge and director of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy, said cities ranging between 15,000 and 50,000 have both significant capacity because of population but also significant capacity challenges.

"They're in a bit of a liminal space or developmental space in terms of the municipal landscape of the province," he said.

Hallstrom said the Municipal Governance Act — the legislation that created the framework for municipalities — basically treats all municipalities the same and does not reflect political, service, or revenue realities.

He said mid-sized urban centres often provide services for more than their immediate population, acting as a hub for surrounding rural areas.

An additional challenge arises from the mere fact that smaller municipalities do not have the same staff as Edmonton or Calgary.

"There is a sense that if the municipalities are going to … gain some sort of advantage, particularly in terms of resources which they need vis-a-vis the province, it makes sense to do it collectively."