10 Things Councils Can Do to Support Sustainability

Posted on Monday July 16, 2018 at 01:33PM

If you sit on a town, village or hamlet Council, it is important you understand that the decisions you make now, more than ever, will have a direct impact on whether or not your community is still around in the next 10 years. Gone are the days when you can just react to whatever thing is happening outside of your community limits. If your community is going to survive, and eventually thrive, it is time you started considering the following essentials when it comes to sustaining your communities.

1. Find out where the training is, and go to it.
You owe it to the people you serve by being on Council to find out what it is you do not know and then get to learning about it. SUMA , SEDA and SARM conferences are important, and it is important your council go and learn about important things like legislation that affects you, and grants that are available to you. There is an abundance of Council training available to you, just go and take it, and then come on home and apply that training. You can even have it in house, using a variety of resources that are often offered at low and no cost.  Just go do it. Then come home and apply what you learn. Do that a lot.

2. Treat your community budget with a view towards sustainability, not popularity.
Everybody hates paying taxes. Everybody. But making lower taxes the priority means eventually you run out of money for critical infrastructure. How do you propose to pay for the water, sewer, and other important things when lower taxes do not allow you to repair and upgrade basic infrastructure? There are communities out there that do not charge the residents even what the basic services cost. The end result is when the rare funding opportunity comes up for our smaller populations they are not able to apply because they lack the necessary matching funds. True, the Council that dares to up the taxes or *gasp* charge what it costs for water and sewer get a very hard time from the rate payers.Prices keep going up and the level of service does not improve, in fact it often barely remains the same, and rate payers do not see the value for the money spent. Which brings me to: 

3. Keep your community in the loop.
When people have the same information at the same time, most of them will arrive at the same decision. Providing your community with all the information is the best way for the community to understand the decisions that need to be made, and helps them understand the impacts of not making those difficult decisions.  Done well, community engagement, provides Council with community feedback on those tough decisions. Make your council minutes available online, and make sure people know how and when to attend a council meeting.  That way when you have to decide what you are going to fund, and what you can no longer fund, you have the community in your corner.

4. Use asset management as a means to manage your assets--not just as a paper thing the government expects you to do.
The legislation is there for a reason. It is intended to support communities to identify those things they need to be able  to continue offering services at the current level, and to identify those problem areas that can make providing that level of service a problem. No engineering firm, or my firm, or any other take the place of Council and Administration working together to manage those assets. Attempting to offload that into a simple infrastructure management is missing the point. Which brings me to:

5. Work with your volunteer groups to manage the upkeep of your recreational facilities--do not use your volunteer groups as unpaid labor whose job it is to reduce taxes for everyone else.
Yup. I said it. Councils are responsible for all community assets including the recreational buildings for which they hold the title. Leaving the operations and maintenance as the sole responsibility to unpaid volunteers is a completely unsustainable model, even though it is an extremely popular one in small communities. Volunteers are owed a huge amount of respect for all the dollars they save every single tax payer by raising funds that would otherwise have to be provided by the tax base. While for many volunteers groups the operations of these facilities is offset by volunteer labor and fundraising, communities need to include these facilities in their long-term financial plans particularly for building and equipment upgrades and repairs. As volunteer bases shrink, and expenses get higher, it is simply unreasonable to expect a small group to raise sufficient funds to upgrade or replace some of these facilities. The alternative is that eventually the cost of repairs will outstrip the volunteers' ability to raise sufficient funds to keep the building viable--or the volunteers will simply burn out and quit. When that happens, the level of service drops until there is no longer a rink, or a a pool, or a park, or the community foots the bill in an unplanned reactive way that impacts other priorities. Say you build a pool, and that pool costs a million dollars, and is expected to last 20 order to replace that same pool in another 20 years, you need to put aside at least $4,000.00 a month, every month,  for the next 20 years. Bare in mind this expense does not include the operational cost. That is just one facility.   Imagine what it would cost your community to have to pay for each of these facilities from your tax base? How long would it take before the community could not sustain those amenities we all take for granted? We really need to work together.

6. Support your local businesses. I am not talking about buying locally here, I am more of a regional thinker, and believe it is the responsibility of business to court their own market. I do not think it is the role of Council to attempt to make the rest of the community buy locally. I do however, think that putting money into your local economy helps. Council's have a role here through the promotion and support of the local community. For example, helping support the creation of a local Chamber, or offering web space to local businesses helps your whole community look great. Job creation supports, business expansion supports are both critical activities. Promoting your own business community as a Council is in your community's best interest. If you have a conversation with your businesses, they will help you by telling you what they need. This is a process called business retention and expansion.  Lets bring your businesses forward and show them off. I've made visits and spent money to a community based on the marketing efforts of a single business. I know I am not the only one. Smoke stack chasing...the art of courting new businesses to come, is largely ineffective. Offering incentives and putting money in to bring a new business in is not nearly as effective as supporting your existing businesses when one considers 80 to 90 percent of community growth occurs as the result of local business growth.

7. Make a plan based on the strengths of your community.
Again, making plans to keep them on the administrator's shelf is a huge waste of time, energy and money. Official Community Plans aka OCPs are important, strategic plans are important and need to be used. Otherwise, you just spent a bunch of taxpayers money on nothing at all, except some vague sense that you met the legislative requirements. If you did this, you may have met the requirements but you miss the point. The whole reason these things are legislated is not to put upon these poor communities who are already doing so much with so little, but to help these same communities plan in away that will help them not to die. Communities are a lot like families, with some working better than others.  Families fall apart, and so do communities. Some just don't make it. Your best defense is to come up with a plan that brings in new dollars, and creates a strong local niche economy. Your community has something unique going for it. Which brings me to:

8. Start thinking globally.
It's a small world after all to quote a famous Disney movie. There are people who would love to pay to see what it is you are doing in your neck of the woods. Think about the last trip you took, and the things you did there. What did you value more than hanging out with the locals doing locally things?  There are events, activities, practices and plays that could be interesting to someone who doesn't know what that kind of thing is all about. I encourage Councils to take a good look at their communities through fresh eyes, and look at ways to monetize those things that make you special. Tourism may not be the only thing, but it is one more thing to explore.

9. Actively seek partners.
Partnerships have potential to solve a lot of community economic development problems if you look at ways of partnering that go beyond the willingness to work together when there is an emergency. What if you were to make a phone calls when you are ready to do paving, and partnered with a neighboring community who is also ready to do paving? What if you collaborated on events, or hired a community economic development professional as a combined effort? What if you shared advertising costs, or collaborated on tourism? What if you came up with a regional community economic development plan, and split the cost of the professional you hire? There are lots of ways to work together if you first decide what you can offer to another community.

10. Get online.
There is no need to worry about setting up a social media account. In fact, it is important you do so, along with a working website that is updated regularly. There is training to support you, and you need to do it. It is how all the cool kids do business now.

Author: Solomon Matthewson Consulting


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Wonderful article

Thank you for writing and sharing this excellent article. It rings true on every line. We all have responsibility within the roles we play in society as Councillors, citizens, volunteers. We must participate with as much knowledge (with training), insight (in holistic planning), and care (for now and future generations) as we can muster. You have spoken it plainly and with passion.

Posted on Tuesday July 17, 2018 at 07:32AM by Robyn Campbell

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