Sackville’s acting mayor says it’s hard to tell from yesterday’s Speech from the Throne what the Higgs government has in mind when it comes to municipal reform.
“We just want to see what they come up with,” Ron Aiken said during a telephone interview.
He added that it’s one thing if the province wants to give political representation to New Brunswick’s 236 local service districts (LSDs) which have no elected mayors or councillors, but quite another if it intends to create big regional governments by amalgamating smaller municipalities.
“And if it’s shared services they’re talking about, tell us what services you mean and how you’re going to share them,” Aiken said.
“For example, they say let’s amalgamate all the fire services so we have one big fire department for the area,” he added. “Sackville citizens have invested millions of dollars in fire equipment and we’re not just going to give that to somebody else,” he said.
“They can talk about these sorts of things, but when the rubber hits the road, I think there’s a lot of stuff that has to be worked out.”
Yesterday’s Speech from the Throne declared that the province intends to a have a conversation with citizens about ways to improve a fragmented local government system that has roots in the 1960s.
“There have been dozens of studies highlighting the need for reforms, and it’s time to move to action and implementation,” the speech added.
One of the most recent and comprehensive of those studies — the Jean-Guy Finn report of 2008 — recommended combining more than 100 local governments and hundreds of LSDs into 53 municipalities grouped into 12 districts that would deliver regional services such as planning, solid waste management, policing, emergency measures and economic development.
Sackville would have merged with the villages of Port Elgin and Dorchester as well as the nine LSDs in the Tantramar area to form a single municipality.
But Finn’s recommendations went nowhere when the Liberal government of the day said the $88 million cost of implementing them was too high.
In 2013, a Conservative government established 12 regional service commissions (RSCs) including the Southeast RSC that oversees land-use planning and garbage collection in Sackville and other municipalities in Westmorland and Albert Counties.
‘What is the problem?’
Acting Mayor Aiken says he’s not sure why the Higgs government is so concerned about the number of municipalities in New Brunswick.
“What is the problem they’re trying to solve?” he asks.
“Frankly, I don’t see a big problem with a bunch of small municipalities; there’s this regionalization kick and I have yet to see anywhere where that’s saved anybody any money. All you end up doing is slapping another layer of government in there.”
Aiken says that for Sackville, the real issue is that residents in the nearby LSDs get subsidized fire services from the town and enjoy facilities such as the Civic Centre arena while paying much lower property taxes.
“That to me is where the problem lies,” he says, adding that the province hasn’t done anything to solve it.
“If you wanted to incorporate Westcock and British Settlement and maybe Midgic into Sackville itself, well that kind of makes sense in a way given the kind of economic bubble we’re in around here, but to put Dorchester, Sackville and Port Elgin in one community to me is just nuts; it’s a huge area and I would ask what’s being gained from that.”
Meantime, Premier Higgs told reporters in Fredericton yesterday that it may take more than one, four-year term to implement municipal reform.
As Ron Aiken puts it, “there’s a lot of stuff that has to be worked out.”
This is the first in a three-part series on the prospects for municipal reform in New Brunswick.