Mayors offer support for local governance overhaul

The Alward government's plan to overhaul local governance is receiving cautious support from some New Brunswick mayors.
Local Government Minister Bruce Fitch talks about his plan to lower the number of local governments. 6:10

Several New Brunswick mayors are giving cautious approval to the Alward government's plan to reform local government that is intended to reduce the number of municipalities in the province.

Local Government Minister Bruce Fitch unveiled the plan on Tuesday, which will use incentives to persuade rural areas to co-operate or merge with other towns and villages.

Local Government Minister Bruce Fitch's plan for municipal reform is being greeted with cautious optimism from some mayors. (CBC)
Fitch said in an interview on Tuesday that he’d like to see "potentially" 100 fewer municipalities in the first year.

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

More than a dozen rural areas around Tracadie-Sheila are already talking about merging and the northeastern town wants to join them. But that merger couldn’t happen under the old rules.

Tracadie-Sheila Mayor Aldeoda Losier said bringing the smaller areas into a larger community makes sense.

"The group feels with 20,000 people, 16,000 to 20,000, that creates a kind of advantage if you want to do economic development," Losier said.

The Alward government’s local governance report clearly stated that many communities were not economically sustainable.

Jean-Guy Finn issued a similar warning in his 2009 report that called for the number of governing bodies to be cut to 53 from 372.

The former Liberal government shelved the Finn report in the year leading up to the 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.

Fitch, a former mayor of Riverview, toured many New Brunswick communities in the spring, asking local groups, politicians and citizens about their views on local governance reform.

No forced amalgamations

The Alward government’s plan is not setting out a firm number of municipalities that it wants to see after the end of the process. The premier and cabinet ministers have repeatedly said they will not force municipalities to amalgamate.

Fitch and Campbellton Mayor Bruce MacIntosh discuss proposals for local governance reform. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)
Under the plan, rather than force amalgamations, the provincial government will use tax policy to make it more appealing.

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

Campbellton Mayor Bruce MacIntosh said he believes some smaller areas will see the wisdom in forming larger partnerships with nearby communities.

"I think in time the rural governments will decide then which is the best way for them to go," MacIntosh said.

Municipalities, particularly small ones with barely enough money to survive, have been calling for changes for years.

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.

While many opponents to mergers cite concerns over higher taxes, Clowater said that has not been an issue in his rural community.

"There has been very little increase in taxes from our side of it … almost done in the last four years," he said.

One municipal organization said the plan appears to be striking an important balance between the concerns raised by groups in the past about local governance changes and the need to overhaul the process.

Rexton Mayor David Hanson, who heads the Union of New Brunswick Municipalities, said the plan makes sense.

"A lot of good ideas are involved in those main five points. The key to it all is the details as they come forward," Hanson said.

The provincial government will put the new measures in place over the next two years.