The New Brunswick government has announced municipal reform plans that would drastically reduce the number of local government entities in the province from 340 to 90, with a new total of 78 municipalities and 12 rural districts.
Under the plan, the Town of Sackville would merge with the Village of Dorchester and the surrounding local service districts, that include the communities of British Settlement, Westcock and Wood Point, to form one of the 78 municipalities with an estimated population of 8,352 and an estimated tax base of $869.8 million:
The reforms, announced today by Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain, would also merge Port Elgin with its surrounding areas:
The province is planning to expand the mandate of the 12 regional service commissions from their current role of collecting garbage and overseeing municipal land-use planning to co-ordinating economic development, tourism promotion, community development, regional transportation (community transit) and recreational infrastructure cost-sharing.
In addition, the regional service commissions would have a mandate to establish Public Safety Committees on policing and fire protection:
“We’re here for the next generation and this is why we’re moving today with this bold reform,” Allain said today during an online news conference.
He added that reform is badly needed since the province has changed so much since the major municipal reforms of the 1960s.
“Change is long overdue in our province,” Allain said referring to the 65-page government white paper he released today. He said the white paper outlines the changes that will be enshrined in provincial legislation the government plans to introduce next month.
In combined municipalities such as Sackville and Dorchester, plans call for an election next November so that the new council could take office on January 1, 2023.
The province says it will appoint transition teams to come up with structuring the new councils and drawing ward boundaries as well as naming the new municipality. The teams will also oversee the hiring of a clerk and a chief administrative officer who would be in place by September 1, 2022.
On the thorny question of municipal tax increases, especially for LSD residents, Allain insisted people will pay only for the municipal services they receive.
He said the province is considering options such as reducing provincial property tax rates, revisiting the cost of roads that the province maintains in rural areas and giving municipalities more ways of raising revenues.
Sackville’s mayor said today’s provincial announcement that the town would be merged with the Village of Dorchester and surrounding local service districts came as something of a surprise.
“We anticipated some changes,” Shawn Mesheau told CHMA reporter Erica Butler in a telephone interview. “We probably weren’t aware of the aggressiveness in regards to those changes,” he added.
“Changes were anticipated, but maybe not to this extent.”
Mesheau said town staff are analyzing the provincial white paper so that council can be properly briefed on it before deciding what, if any steps, need to be taken.
In July, Mesheau sent a letter to Daniel Allain that firmly opposed merging Sackville with surrounding areas.
“Sackville does not feel amalgamation is a realistic solution,” the letter said, “and would object to any forced amalgamation.”
However, in his CHMA interview, the mayor seemed more conciliatory.
“We’re just pleased to see that the province is moving forward on the local governance reform,” he said.
“Like I said, it’s a very detailed document and it’s one that we’ll have to get a better understanding on.”
Mesheau said an expanded co-ordinating role for the Southeast Regional Service Commission, especially on economic development and tourism, is “a step in the right direction” and he suggested he’d be interested in running for mayor in a larger municipality if there’s another election next fall.
A professor at Mount Allison University, who specializes in municipal politics, says that if it does press ahead with municipal reform, the Higgs government risks short-term unpopularity and the likelihood of defeat in the next provincial election.
“I thought that this government would either make major changes in health care or they would make major changes in municipal government and not both,” Geoff Martin said today in a telephone interview.
“And, I think they chose municipal government, I’m assuming because there’s less allegiance to the current municipal system in New Brunswick,” he added.
“This is more than I expected,” Martin said. “It is a transformation on the scale of the Equal Opportunity Program and the changes in the mid 1960s.”
He said that as the Finn report on municipal reform showed in 2008, there’s a recognition, at least among elites in New Brunswick, that changes are needed.
“This is highly ambitious and politically possibly foolhardy for the government to be committed to this, but on the other hand, maybe with Mr. Higgs…maybe there’s something he wants to say, ‘Well, I made a political sacrifice, but it was for something that had to be done.'”