Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently accused the provincial government of treating the City of Calgary like a ‘farm team.’ I’m not sure that was the best analogy, as a pro-sports team can call up prospects from a farm team at any time. A better sports analogy to illustrate the relationship would be between a micromanaging general manager, and a subservient coaching staff. The staff knows full well that they are better placed to make in-game decisions than the management, yet upper management doesn’t trust them to do so. They each have their own clearly delineated roles with respect to the game — management decides which players to acquire, the coaching staff determines how to use them — but the general manager believes that only he can ensure that his grand vision is translated into in-game performances. Though the analogy is still imperfect, it captures the problem that Mayor Nenshi is getting at. But the problem is broader than he suggests.
The scrape between the City and Province stems from a disagreement over Calgary’s regional growth plan. The Mayor believes that the Province is dragging its feet (Minister Griffiths disagrees, but I’m not in a position to arbitrate between them). He uses this issue to illustrate the necessity of new city charters for Calgary and Edmonton. While the cities do require more authority (as the benighted coaching staff above needs more leeway to run its team), half-measures won’t do.
Giving our hypothetical coaching staff more authority to run special teams without giving them more responsibility for the overall game might result in some improvements, but it still wouldn’t give them either the ability, or the incentives, to turn the team around. Mayor Nenshi is right to ask for more revenue generating tools. But unless that additional revenue comes with full responsibility for municipal infrastructure, City Council will always be at the mercy of provincial politics.
Calgary doesn’t need a little more revenue to meet its obligations. It needs a lot more revenue. But only if the province is willing to take a lot less. Otherwise Calgary will continue to stagnate. It makes no sense whatsoever for the provincial government to generate revenue for municipal infrastructure projects. Doing so results in inefficient transfers that are prone to politicization. If Mayor Nenshi wants more revenue, he is going to have to ask for a lot more responsibility. This isn’t just about a municipal plan or funding specific projects. This is about empowering the level of government best able to deliver day to day services. If you want the general manager to stop calling the plays, you have to get him off the ice.