Municipal dashboard misses the mark, officials say

·5 min read

Municipal officials aren't convinced a new municipal data comparison tool released by the province this month is useful or valuable.

On Dec. 14, the province launched the Municipal Measurement Index (MMI), which compiles already available data from municipalities across the province and displays the information in an easy-to-navigate web dashboard. It lets people check their municipality's financial picture and compare certain metrics – like surpluses, tax levies and assessments – to other communities.

Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard said during a press conference with rural newspapers Dec. 16 that the tool was released for all Albertans to learn more about the municipalities they live in.

“It's intended for access for anybody in the province who would like some information either on the municipality that they live in, or on a municipality that they're considering living in. It's also available for municipal leaders across the province,” Allard said.

But leaders at both the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) say the tool may not achieve what it is intended to do.

Barry Morishita, president of AUMA, and Paul McLauchlin, president of RMA, both said the comparison between municipalities does not tell the whole story of a community and may not be providing an apples-to-apples comparison.

"It's very hard to understand and very hard to put any information in the context that someone might find it useful," Morishita, who is also the mayor of Brooks, said.

"It's not that useful."

McLauchlin, who is the reeve of Ponoka County said the few numbers included in the dashboard don't tell the whole story of a municipality.

"I always say that we all have a story to tell, and we as rural municipalities – if you use just those metrics, that's not our story. I think that's the biggest difficulty is that these are just numbers," McLauchlin said.

The RMA president and 14-year municipal politician said every municipality is very unique – a strength, not a weakness – and each has unique features and service delivery.

In Ponoka County, for example, McLauchlin said they have 160 bridges, each with a lifecycle of 25 to 30 years and a market replacement cost of $1 million. That data isn't shown in the dashboard.

McLauchlin said all that infrastructure means Ponoka County has to keep planning for the replacement of bridges and roads, but the dashboard calls capital reserves needed to replace infrastructure a "surplus". That's not accurate, he said.

"Anything extra is really a capital replacement account, including cities and towns and villages. We need to replace the infrastructure,"McLauchlin said.

"Literally the day you build something, you need to start putting money away to replace it."

For smaller municipalities, small changes can cause large spikes in the metrics shown on the dashboard. If a community amalgamates its fire services with the communities around it, one of those data points may jump dramatically – but in the end it could actually be a cost-savings measure for the whole region.

Morishita said the dashboard does not take into account service delivery, like if the city has public transportation or how many recreation centres it funds.

"We don't understand those things. And there's not the ability to pull that out of the information," Morishita said.

Both presidents said municipal governments are already very transparent and welcome tools that help residents understand their municipalities more, but the dashboard is not currently achieving that goal.

Minister Tracy Allard said this tool can be helpful for municipal leaders to keep track of which direction their municipality is trending in.

The minister said the dashboard is in its first iteration and the province plans to continue adding new data.

"We wanted to give it a field test, if you will, so that we could pull that new municipal data and add our first set of tweaks early in 2021 for Albertans and for municipal leaders," Allard said.

Allard said the province isn't quite sure yet what new data will be added, but has heard feedback that there is an appetite to have councillor remuneration listed.

"That one's come up a number of times, but I won't promise ... that it'll go in, but it's certainly something that we would consider," Allard said.

She noted the tool has some limitations for making apples-to-apples comparisons between municipalities that are too different. If people try to compare cities of different sizes, like Grande Prairie and Edmonton, Allard said the program will flag that so users understand it isn't a completely fair comparison.

The minister said she doesn't believe the MMI is going to be used for the purposes of determining future municipal funding.

"But I would say that smart, strategic municipal leaders will be using it, I'm sure, to plan their regional development and their economic investment attraction. And I think that that would go a long way for them to secure funds," Allard said.

The government is currently in the process of rejigging the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI), a major source of funding for municipalities that comes to an end next year. It's morphing into the Local Government Fiscal Framework and the funding formula is being recalculated to include metrics other than per-capita funding.

Allard said both AUMA and RMA were consulted on the project but Morishita described that consulatation as a "sneak peek."

"I wish they would quit use the word 'consulting' when they don't make any changes or take any of our advice," Morishita said.

Allard said some of the municipalities had concerns about the metrics chosen, but the data presented in the dashboard was all already publicly available.

"I'll reinforce this data was all already available. It wasn't conveniently (available) in a nice interface and collected in one format. But it was all already public-facing," Allard said.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette