Province shines light on municipal finances with new online dashboard

·3 min read

Albertans can now check their municipality's financial picture and compare it to other communities, thanks to a new provincial online tool.

On Monday, 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.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Tracy Allard said during a press conference with rural newspapers Wednesday 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.

The tool displays data such as municipal tax levies, the composition of residential versus nonresidential tax assessment, debt per capita, accumulated surplus per capita and revenue and expenses per capita. However, it doesn't include non-financial information such as services and amenities.

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.

The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) and the Rural Municipalities Association (RMA) were both consulted on the project before it went live and given a sneak peek at the new dashboard before the rest of the province, Allard said.

"Some of the members had concerns about the metrics chosen, but again, I'll reinforce this data was all already available. It wasn't conveniently in a nice interface and collected in one format. But it was all already public-facing," Allard said.

In a statement to members posted on their website, the AUMA said municipalities are already a very transparent order of government.

"We must remember that each municipality is an independent order of government and has the responsibility to deliver services per the wishes of its residents and businesses. Therefore, any comparisons of financial performance must consider the differences in types and levels of services provided by each municipality, as well as differences in local taxable resources and funding strategies," the statement read. "Looking ahead, one of AUMA’s concerns is whether MMI will lead to the spread of disinformation and new red tape for municipalities. As such, AUMA is currently reviewing MMI to make sure it is fair and accurate."

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