An expert on municipal government in New Brunswick says the Higgs government risks political suicide if it presses too hard on municipal reform.
Geoff Martin, a politics professor at Mount Allison University, says that may be why the commitment to reform seemed so weak in Tuesday’s Speech from the Throne.
“It’s a lot more timid than I expected,” Martin says referring to the government’s promise “to have a new conversation with citizens of this province” about how to improve a fragmented municipal system with 104 local governments, 236 local service districts (LSDs) and 12 regional service commissions.
“Governments have been saying they’re going to have conversations about municipal reform for 10, 15, 25 years,” Martin says. “I would have thought that they would have something more definite to say right now.”
He argues that one of the system’s biggest problems involves the rural LSDs which have no elected representatives and are governed by officials in Fredericton.
“We do badly need rural elected democracy,” Martin says. He adds, however, that rural residents may not want it especially in a neoliberal age when people have become so accustomed to austerity and cuts in services that they look with suspicion on any increase in taxes.
“You’re going to hit a high degree of opposition in rural New Brunswick from people who figure that the only thing municipal reform really can mean is tax increases for them,” he says.
“They won’t necessarily focus on any of the benefits they could get,” Martin says, adding that many rural residents aren’t aware of how the property taxes they pay don’t cover the full cost of the services they receive for such things as road maintenance, snow plowing, policing, fire protection and emergency services.
He points to figures showing that while the average tax rate in 2019 was only 97 cents per $100 of assessment in the LSDs, the average rate in cities, towns and villages was $1.52. (Sackville’s residential property tax rate is $1.56.)
A recently updated report from the association that represents the eight cities of New Brunswick claims LSDs receive about $100 million more in subsidies than they pay in taxes:
Martin, who wrote a 25-page academic paper on municipal reform for the Journal of Canadian Studies in 2007, says that making significant changes would take all the political capital the government has this term.
“I think it’s either you do municipal reform or you do health-care reform, you can’t do both,” he says, adding that either could jeopardize the re-election chances of a government with a narrow majority.
“I personally think Blaine Higgs will see health care as a higher priority and if he’s got to make a sacrifice, it’s going to be for changes in health care, not for changes in the municipal sector,” Martin says.
“Maybe the throne speech promise on municipal reform is so timid because the government has finally figured out, Gee this is not going to be easy, this is going to be very controversial and there’s a good chance we won’t be able to do very much of what we’ve hinted we want to do,” he concludes.