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Jun 2020 | May-June Issue

Tyler Sutton, Editor-in-Chief



As of this writing, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide has hit 6.1 million. Economies are beginning to open at various paces, as global leaders grapple with a precarious balancing act of protecting lives and saving jobs. National governments continue to introduce programs to keep corporations and small businesses afloat, while provincial governments monitor the stress on healthcare systems and watch with trepidation as some jurisdictions send students back to school. 
These are the headlines we are now used to reading on a daily basis. What’s often buried on page four or five are the measures being taken by local governments to keep vital services in place for your community. Sure, we hear about the latest crackdown by bylaw officers on residents in contravention of physical distancing – see Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. But enforcing COVID-19 physical distancing measures (and more often educating the public about those measures), is only one small part of the municipal responsibility during these unprecedented times.
An economy cannot reopen without a reliable, safe and funded public transit system. Restaurants and businesses cannot spring back to life without changes to our urban environment that allow for safe physical distancing. And we cannot return to our parks without the continued maintenance and inspections provided by municipal staff. These are the largely invisible efforts of our local governments during this pandemic that have allowed us to maintain some semblance of normalcy in our lives and that will form the backbone of our economic recovery. 
There is, however, another significant challenge facing our local governments that will hamper their contribution to recovery. Unlike the federal and provincial governments in Canada, our local governments are prohibited from running deficits. Combined with the rising costs associated with COVID-19 responses and the rapid decline in revenue as transit fees are waived and property taxes and user fees are deferred, local governments are facing a fiscal crisis with no room to maneuver. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), our municipalities now face a staggering near-term financial gap of $10 to $15 billion.
Canadian municipalities, and their advocacy groups, will continue to push federal and provincial governments to help address the fiscal crisis, with FCM recommending a $10 billion formula-based transfer in emergency operating funding to all local governments, among other measures. Today (June 1st, 2020), Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the 2020-21 allocation of Federal Gas Tax Funding will be dispersed to municipalities now in one lump sum payment, rather than in two payments as is the norm. 
Although this is not new money announced for Canadian municipalities, the upfront injection of $2.2 billion in cash should provide some liquidity for local governments. When asked why this announcement falls short of the $10 billion requested by Canadian municipalities, Trudeau responded “we need to do more and we will do more, but we need to work with the provinces and encourage them to step up to help municipalities.” While the federal and provincial governments, with their own fiscal challenges, negotiate their response to the municipal problem, local governments must push forward as they have always done.
Despite their limited fiscal tools, local governments and their leaders are employing other solutions to maintain service delivery and staff morale. Most municipalities are now revisiting their 2020 budgets, adjusting for significant changes in revenue and expenditures. What would have been a painstaking process has been expedited by those governments using budgeting and decision support software. PSD is working with local governments across the country, using its CityWide Software applications, to revise budget estimates and compare investment scenarios quickly and accurately for informed decision making (see The Need for a Holistic Decision-Making Framework to Achieve Better Infrastructure Levels of Service). 
Likewise, local governments are embracing new open source GIS solutions to add mapping and analytics capacity, without committing to significant licensing fees (see A Guide to Open Source GIS Software for the Public Sector). And not all solutions being employed by local governments during the pandemic are technological. In PSD’s interview series with Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) from across Canada, it became clear that leadership tools are just as important as policy and programmatic levers to ensure continued service delivery for our communities. Beverly Hendry, CAO for the Township of West Lincoln in Ontario, explained that despite a constant barrage of challenges, her focus has been on tackling the problems that are within her organization’s control: “There have been times where I felt isolated and frustrated, and then I focus on the things I am grateful for and, frankly, solutions that I can deliver. That success gives me the energy to get back to the more intractable problems.”
As we wait for the policy response from the federal and provincial governments, we’ll continue to watch local governments do what they do best – deliver.