A look to the future of small town

In the first of a series of stories about small towns and their futures Jon Wilsgard shares some thoughts.

The future of smaller municipalities, and how they are going to have to adjust to keep moving forward in the future, is often debated, discussed and questioned.

This week Jon Wilsgard Manager of Corporate Administration for the Town of Golden shared his thoughts on the issues that will face municipalities in the future.

Wilsgard has worked in two levels of government for more than 20 years and sees great changes in the future for smaller towns to flourish going forward.

“A real social reconciliation of what is important for services provided by local government. The scope and range of services plus what does society deem as necessary and essential,” he said. “I think we are coming to a point, due to limits in taxation and less money out there, along with decreasing populations, there will have to be a reconciliation (for the first time) of what’s truly important.”

Wilsgard pointed to the decision by local government in Golden to discontinue the local transit system, as one of the signs of this new kind of thinking.

“There is a real motherhood type of service to provide once you get into it people expect it to be an essential service. Well we lost it. Why? because the value for the tax dollar was not there for council. It was not there for a variety of reasons,” Wilsgard said. “More and more local governments are faced with demands upon them that people expect. But there are costs to everything and where is the funding to cover services going to come from if they do not come from taxation?

Wilsgard felt there is an expectation from the public for grants to provide a wide variety of services, but he feels at some point a wall will be hit and small communities are going to have to decide how best to move forward.

“It is not going to be pretty. We are seeing this in the United States where cities down there are doing things like shutting down the lights on streets. Whether or not that is a temporary result of the recession I do not know, but you cannot go on forever with this expansion of services,” he said.

Wilsgard went on to explain that the way things have been going have forced towns to take a very serious look at the infrastructure gap and see where it truly is.

“Serious discussions have to be had to decide where we are going to sink money or get funded because those are some of the primary essential services that could be at risk,” he said.

As for other challenges he said the population shift could also radically alter the future.

“We are seeing a return to urbanization. Cities are growing massively and people are not coming to rural municipalities…I think stabilizing a population is going to be a challenge,” he said.

When asked about the possibility that some small towns may not be viable in the future Wilsgard  said , “I  have thought about this before. As you go through an economic reconciliation province wide, you look at society and some long time established communities in the province and you think will there come a point where they are just not sustainable,” he said. “You have to have economic anchors out there that support you. If you start losing those, then it is pretty tough.”

As for what can be done Wilsgard shared a system that works and one where he would like to see changes.

One idea he believes has been a success is the Resort Municipality Initiative.

He felt this is a “stellar example” of the provincial  government seeing 14 communities in B.C. where tourism is such an important part of a town’s livelihood that the government has come up with money for these communities to help them continue to develop.

Wilsgard added he felt a movement away from having so many government workers in Victoria would also be beneficial for the province.

“They have a massive outlay of offices. If the provincial government could decentralize itself and relocate itself into communities like ours it would be fabulous…what an economic boom to certain places,” he said.

Another area Wilsgard thinks change is needed, is communities getting a greater share of consumptive taxes from the province.

“Having a more planned form of revenue streams from higher level governments would also help,” he said. “Ultimately if you make your community liveable people will come to live.”

Wilsgard was also open about something that is difficult to understand for him.

“I think my greatest disappointment in my few years working for local government, and I think it may be partly a function of our society, is how non-engaged the public is. That’s the most disappointing thing. The only thing we have engagement over is this singular issue of flood control. But maybe this issue could be avoided if we had a lot more interested people in our community paying attention to what we do on a regular basis,” he said.

Wilsgard hopes this could be a side effect of the reconciliation which he sees coming in the future.

“I know we are not going to go anywhere with what we can do without civic engagement and I know it goes both ways,” Wilsgard said.