Local governance reform gains momentum

While the Alward government has said that many rural areas are now embracing the idea of amalgamation, there are still holdouts expressing concerns to the CBC.

27 restructuring projects being studied, involving 93 communities

The Alward government’s push for local governance reform is gaining momentum as 27 different reform proposals, which could effect 93 communities, are being considered.

In December, several New Brunswick mayors cautiously approved the Alward government's plan to reform local government. It is intended to reduce the number of municipalities in the province, possibly by 100.

A list of community restructuring proposals from the Department of Local Government shows the Alward government is already approaching that goal.

The plans vary in size and scope. There are small proposals with local service districts exploring the possibility of forming a rural community to larger projects that could see as many as 19 municipalities and LSDs merge into a new municipality.

Local Government Minister Bruce Fitch said some communities are interested in finding out more about the benefits of local governance reform.

"We heard [from] a lot [of communities] that wanted their own voice. [They are] frustrated with Fredericton making their decisions for them," said Bruce Fitch, Local Government Minister.

"Miramichi and Clowater, a success example, built a trail system, a playground. It was a real success story and they couldn't have done it as 13 or 14 segregated entities."

The most ambitious plan comes from northeastern New Brunswick. Tracadie-Sheila and 18 local service districts are considering a restructuring plan.

In southern New Brunswick, there are preliminary talks being held with the Village of Blacks Habour, Village of Grand Manan, Town of St. George, and LSDs of Beaver Harbour, Penfield and Deer Island.

Many people CBC approached in St. George did not know the communities are exploring a restructuring plan.

Grand Manan Mayor Dennis Greene said that he is not convinced that change would bring benefits, but he will consider the argument.

"Until we get all the information, I'm trying to keep an open mind," he said.

"I have found that I have mellowed in later years and I can change my mind. After the final product comes down, we'll make up our minds then."

He added that it is hard to share services when you live on an island.

Some holdouts

While the Alward government has said that many rural areas are now embracing the idea of amalgamation, there are still holdouts expressing concerns to the CBC.

There are communities around the province open to merging, but various rules have prevented them from going ahead, or made it financially difficult, in the past.

Danny Dow, a resident of Western Charlotte County, said that local government restructuring is nothing but a tax grab on country people.

"They're saying — the towns and cities — that the rural people aren't paying their fair share when it comes to taxes," he said.

But he said that governments rely on rural communities for valuable infrastructure spending.

"All of your unconditional grants, they get them for sewer jobs; where do they think that money comes from? Most of it comes from rural taxpayers," Dow said.

Finn report started reform talks

Amalgamation talk was fueled by the 2008 Jean-Guy Finn Report, which recommended slashing more than 350 municipalities and unincorporated areas down to about 50 local governing bodies.

The former Liberal government shelved the Finn report in the year leading up to the last provincial election. Premier Shawn Graham said, at the time, the provincial government couldn’t afford to move on the report because it carried with it a hefty pricetag.

Premier David Alward said during the election campaign that he felt the Finn report had to be dusted off. And he committed to local governance reform in his state of the province speech in January 2011.

But his government has said that mergers will only be done at the will of the local people, who will get to vote.

For instance, Upper Miramichi formed a rural community in 2008 that brought together the village of Boiestown and 16 local service districts.

Scott Clowater, the mayor of the Upper Miramichi rural community, said the process has gone smoothly.

The Alward government’s plan does not set a firm number of municipalities that it wants to see. The premier and cabinet ministers have repeatedly said they will not force municipalities to amalgamate.

Under the plan, rather than force amalgamations, the provincial government would use tax policy to make it more appealing.

Road maintenance costs in municipalities may go down, while in rural areas, more administration costs would make property tax bills go up.

The province said it will be looking at what barriers are preventing some communities from coming together, such as inequities within the taxation system, and that it will address those issues this spring.