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“Inter-municipal Cooperation”: A $10 Phrase For A Priceless Idea

by | Sep 11, 2023 | Community Development

I once visited a community where a rumour was circulating that once a regional economic development agreement was signed and a shared-services deal kicked in, the town’s sign would come down and the community would cease to exist as an entity. The rumour was pure rubbish, but it was powerful in stoking fears. Indeed, fears grew until there was so much negative pressure from residents that the elected officials got cold feet and rejected the two agreements. Because the deals were scrapped, service costs escalated while economic development efforts ceased, and the population continued to decline as more businesses on Main Street closed. The community has since been dissolved. Yes, it ceased to exist. Ironically, the residents’ refusal to cooperate, in an effort to preserve their identity and protect their community, caused the community to lose its identity and ultimately caused its demise. 

Odds are you have never heard of a revenue sharing agreement that was signed between a rural municipality (RM of Portage) and an urban municipality (Portage la Prairie) over two decades ago in Manitoba, Canada. The agreement was intended to ensure the two neighbours didn’t fight over who would get new growth and development, instead making them partners in attracting investment, knowing both would benefit. The result has been economic growth that positions them to be an economic powerhouse in Western Canada, and a growing tax base that ensures they can invest in and develop all the aspects necessary to provide a great quality of life for residents. Working together helped them grow their economic pie and take a seat at the table, rather than fighting over little scraps dropped from the table. 

What an incredibly stark contrast between these communities. These types of examples explain why I have been beating the drum on the need for cooperation and collaboration within and between municipalities for years. 

As Municipal Affairs Minister I told Alberta communities the best form of cooperation is voluntary, and I still believe that today. You can’t ensure a good relationship when you are forced into one, but the results are still better than communities that remain fiercely independent for no reason but fear, ignorance, and ego. The best relationships are the ones we choose and invest in, willingly. Yet, most seem willing to wait until cuts to funding, or a complete demise of the local tax base, or political motivations force them into partnerships out of necessity. I wish I could say that problem has been resolved as more examples of collaboration leading to success emerge, but it has not. The need for cooperation and collaboration within and between municipalities is more important now than ever.

Some communities look at inter-municipal cooperation with suspicion. They see municipal relations as a zero sum gain where any gain won by a neighbour must mean a loss for themselves. That was the thinking in the 20th century. It was as small minded and naive thinking back then. It cannot be the mindset of the 21st century if we truly want success and prosperity.

There are many mindsets that prevent municipalities and communities from working together. Fear is one of them. We fear losing our autonomy, which is control over ourselves and our own destiny. We fear losing our power, which is our control over other people and things. And yet, we don’t have as much power or autonomy as we like to think we do. To live and prosper in society we need mutual understanding and compassion. With compassion, understanding, and a sense of give and take, we have the opportunity to find prosperity and success.  As I have noted in the past, by referencing the poet John Donne, none of us is an island, whether that be a person or a community.

However, that fear is not just about losing our sense of power or autonomy, but a fear of losing our identity, which is a powerful motivator and must be addressed. If a person walks up to me and says, “You’re Doug, right?” I’m happy because not only have I been recognized, but they have done it using one of my favourite words – my name. When said sweetly, there is no more appreciated word than our own name. But, if someone walks up to me and says, “You’re Doug from Ardrossan, right?” I’m even happier because now two characteristics fundamental to my identity have been used – my name and my community. The fear, irrational though it may be, of losing your community is almost akin to losing your own name. Our community is part of our identity. I can understand how some residents fear working with others could impact their own identity.

Fear is among the biggest barriers to inter-municipal cooperation and collaboration. But it is not the biggest. The number one spot, in my opinion, goes to “ego.” Egos make us feel independent and feed our need to maintain our independence, or at least our sense of independence. It drives us to think we achieve our success on our own when that is clearly not the case. Our egos force us into an us-versus-them mentality. “They” are not “us,” therefore we should not work together. In reality, there is only “us” – and our desire to be successful requires us all working together. Ego is the antithesis of real leadership.

The report, entitled Thinking Regionally: How to Improve Service Delivery in Canada’s Cities, said cooperation does not necessarily mean amalgamation: “Inter-municipal cooperation, on the other hand, can be an effective means of providing services while not sacrificing economies of scale and scope. Municipalities may voluntarily enter into a range of agreements to contract or share the costs of service production and delivery. Hence this approach can potentially save money and enhance service quality without sacrificing local autonomy.” It is not only necessary to work together to make your community and region more successful, it is possible, as example after example demonstrates. To presuppose it won’t work before you try is to choose ego, and fear, and ignorance over evidence, prosperity, and the future of your community.

This is true not only for Canada but for all of North America, as demonstrated by a paper entitled ​​Inter-municipal Cooperation in the U.S.: A Regional Governance Solution? “Cooperation provides economies of scale and a broader basis for additional forms of collaboration. It can lead to multi-functional cooperation that addresses economic development, land use planning, social equilibrium and political participation,” says the 2006 report written for the Urban Public Economics Review. “Cooperation allows municipalities to reach economies of scale without losing local control and local identity.”

So here’s the crux of the matter. Let’s forget about identity, power, autonomy, representation, taxes, services and all the other things the people will grab onto as obstacles to cooperation and collaboration. You have to decide if you want to focus on the basics or on the essentials. There’s a big difference. The basics are things like payroll, administration and maintenance. Those are things every municipality does. Then there are the essentials like marketing, branding, economic development and attracting investment. Those are matters most municipalities need to do to find a pathway to success. 

Everyone thinks you need to do the basics first and then worry about the “luxuries” later, except the luxuries are actually essential to a prosperous future. If you don’t do the essential things you won’t be attracting new people, or new businesses, or new industries, or new developers, or new investments. Consequently, your community will continue to shrink and lose businesses, people, and money. As it loses those things it loses its tax base and, eventually, it can no longer afford to do the basics.

Too many communities argue there just isn’t enough capacity or resources, not enough time or money, to move forward on cooperation and collaboration efforts. My argument is that no community can afford to not move forward with cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation brings economies-of-scale that in turn allow the basic services to be provided, which in turn frees up resources that can be invested in the essentials, which help communities and regions grow. 

Too often, though, municipalities continue to hold onto the basic services they think define them as a community, that give them autonomy, power, and identity. All the while the pie shrinks. Every year it gets harder and harder to deliver those basic services and everyone wonders what they can do about it. The answer is right in front of them. They need to work together with neighbouring communities to deliver the basics, so they can focus new investments on the essentials. Yes, there will be a risk if you fail, but there’s an even bigger risk if you do nothing. 

And as I say at the end of my keynote presentations: Go ahead and remain fiercely independent to keep your power, your autonomy, and your identity. Your community will shrink until it dies, alone, without power, without autonomy, and without any identity when they finally take your town sign down, because there is no one left.