Frontrunner: For better and for worse

September 17, 2010 9:05 AM

On Thursday, David Alward stepped out of a closed-door meeting with the mayors of the province's cities and, for the first time, looked like the front-runner in the election.

Part of it was what he said. "We cannot afford to leave the Finn report on the shelf," he said of the controversial 2008 document that recommended, among other things, municipal mergers to dramatically reduce the number of local governments in the province.

Although the Liberals immediately shelved it at the time (citing, not altogether believably, the cost of implementing it during an economic downturn), the PCs became very agitated: they were convinced there was a plot to bring back McKenna-style forced amalgamations -- one of the many heavy-handed moves in the late 1990s that contributed to the Bernard Lord landslide.

So determined were they to oppose this secret agenda, the PCs passed a policy resolution last fall promising no amalgamations if they took office without the approval of voters in the communities involved, something the Liberals had already said they would not do. It felt like the Tories were fighting ghosts.

Now it's Alward opening the door to implementing Finn, or perhaps Finn-lite, and it speaks volumes about the dynamic of the campaign.

The premier repeated on Thursday it's still not time to spend what he estimated was the $50-$60 million required to move ahead -- though Shawn Graham has happily spent many times that amount on roads and bridges.

Alward said the province can't afford to wait, suggesting he recognizes now some of the difficult decisions he may have to make starting next month. His comments lay the groundwork for those decisions, and pre-empts any suggestion he didn't talk about municipal reform when seeking a mandate.

The other part of Alward's new front-runner appearance was not what he said, but what the mayors said.

They told him clearly -- and repeated to reporters while he stood listening -- that his promised permanent freeze on the property tax assessments for senior citizens will badly hobble municipal budget-making.

Bathurst Mayor Stephen Brunet referred to it as "tampering" with the 80 to 90 per cent of revenues that municipalities get from property taxes.

Saint John Mayor Ivan Court said it's foolish to create a universal, rather than means-based, program to help seniors on fixed incomes and predicted it would reduce municipalities to "orphans."

Both predicted services will suffer. (Brunet also disclosed that Alward, who has made a mantra of consulting, didn't check with the mayors before making the promise.)

Their comments make it clear, as did their body language, that they now see Alward as the man they expect to be dealing with over the next four years. And that means they need to take his campaign promises seriously.

Alward himself, with his comments on Finn, is obviously becoming aware of the responsibility that may be thrust on him in a few weeks; the mayors clearly wish he'd use that awareness to rethink his budget-busting promise to seniors.
-- Jacques Poitras

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