The sudden rush in the last month for Parrsboro to dissolve its town status and join Cumberland County is in sharp contrast to what’s been happening in the Pictou area where citizens will get the right to vote before amalgamation goes ahead.
Since June 2014, politicians in the Pictou area have also been moving carefully to ensure that amalgamation will not take place without guarantees of tax fairness and assurances that municipal services will be maintained at current levels.
Ron Baillie, Warden of Pictou County, who is chair of the committee overseeing amalgamation, says it’s important to give citizens a say in how they’re governed. He says that’s why the towns of Stellarton, New Glasgow and Pictou along with the Municipality of Pictou County, will hold a plebiscite on amalgamation, probably in mid-May.
“The residents will get to vote, are you in favour of amalgamation of these four units, yes or no?” Baillie said during an interview with warktimes last week.
He added that although the results of the plebiscite will be non-binding and the four councils will make the final decision, the outcome of the vote will have a strong influence on what the politicians decide.
Public consultation is key
Baillie says the four municipalities signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on amalgamation in November 2014 and set up a committee to guide the process. The committee has two representatives from each of the four councils and so far, has held more than 10 public meetings that are advertised on a special website, onepictoucounty.ca.
He says the municipalities are also conducting their own studies on the implications of amalgamation and have already held several public meetings on the results of the first one on electoral boundaries. He says public consultation is the most important aspect of the amalgamation process.
“We’ve got to have public buy-in into the process or it’s not going to happen,” he says.
And unlike Parrsboro, the four municipalities’ joint application to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board for permission to amalgamate, has a number of conditions attached. One of them is that there be no adverse effect on tax rates.
“What that means is that there is different tax rates within the four participating municipalities, so nobody’s taxes are going to go up at the benefit of somebody else,” Baillie says. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that taxes come down, but you don’t have one unit paying for the others.”
He adds that another condition guarantees no reduction in municipal service levels.
“If they plow the streets after a snow in the Town of Pictou within two hours now, then they would expect the same type of service after (amalgamation),” Baillie says.
Tax comparisons before and after
Baillie says the four municipalities are currently working on financial projections to show taxpayers how their rates would be affected by amalgamation. Later this fall, residents will be able to go online to compare what they’re paying now in taxes with what they would pay after amalgamation.
“They can make their own (judgment) based on pure hard facts,” he says.
Baillie has been the Pictou County Warden since 2008. He was first elected to Pictou County Council in 1997 when he says amalgamation was a dirty word.
He now feels strongly, however, that the four municipalities would have a brighter future if they become one unit. Instead of competing for businesses to locate in the area, for example, he says an amalgamated municipality could provide a form of one-stop shopping for private companies.
“We were all competing,” he adds, “and we basically ended up getting nowhere. And having one voice gives you a stronger voice. In this case, representing 40,000 people gives you a stronger voice than what it is if you represent half that number or a quarter or a third.”
At the same time, though, he says amalgamation can’t simply be imposed.
“You have to bring the public along,” he says.