Sweeping municipal reform bill sails through, will become law Friday
Bill paves the way to reduce 340 local government entities to fewer than 100
With barely a peep of protest, the Higgs government's sweeping local government reform won final approval from the legislature Thursday.
The Progressive Conservative majority passed the reform package on third reading. Opposition parties didn't even demand a roll call vote to drag out the moment and force each MLA to record their vote individually.
A few members called out "no" votes but the process was perfunctory, given the bill's importance.
Passage of the legislation paves the way for the province to reduce 340 local government entities to just 78 municipalities and 12 rural districts.
It will also give new powers to regional service commissions to co-ordinate the delivery of programs between communities to avoid overlap and waste.
The reform is intended to address chronic local government problems that have built up for years, including the sharing and funding of local services and infrastructure, and the growth of urban sprawl just outside the taxation reach of cities, towns and villages.
The bill will become law Friday, when Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy grants royal assent to it and other pieces of legislation.
It gives the government a major policy win on an issue that three previous premiers have seen as too politically risky to tackle.
"A great majority of New Brunswickers are happy," Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain told reporters. "A great number of New Brunswickers have been advocating for change with municipal reform."
Still a lot of work to do, minister says
Allain said there's still a lot of work to do. He'll soon decide on alternate merger proposals from some communities.
But he said the small number of proposals, from about 10 out of 104 existing municipalities and around 20 out of 236 locate service districts, show that the reforms have been mostly accepted.
Opposition parties had demanded more time to debate the bill and a longer period for local communities to respond to the changes, but they didn't put up a major fight.
"We're not against the change, don't get me wrong," said Liberal Leader Roger Melanson. "But there are a lot of unknowns.
"What New Brunswickers want to know right now is not a matter of being for and against. It's getting more information to get a better understanding of what they really want to accomplish."
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he wanted an extension of the deadline for municipalities to propose alternatives to what was laid out in Allain's Nov. 18 report.
Thursday was the deadline for submissions, and Allain is expected to finalize the makeup and boundaries of the 90 new local entities within days.
"I'm just hoping before then that the minister will reconsider and look at alternate options," said Austin, who said he wasn't completely opposed to the reforms either.
But Allain said that after months of meetings it was time to make decisions.
"We consulted all year. We have to move ahead."
Past governments avoided major changes
The last time a government looked at major reform was 2008, when retired civil servant Jean-Guy Finn delivered a detailed report to the Liberal government of premier Shawn Graham.
Graham promptly shelved the report.
His successors, Progressive Conservative David Alward and Liberal Brian Gallant, made some stabs at minor reforms but avoided major changes.
All of them adhered to the idea that any municipal mergers required approval of local residents in plebiscites, an obstacle the Higgs government is eliminating.
Finn said Thursday that voluntary reform was never going to work.
"That's been the difficulty in the last 12 years," he said. "Every time they tried to restructure, they tried to do it on a voluntary basis and it didn't work."
"For one reason or another, this government decided that they would proceed and lead the process."
Finn said he wasn't surprised that there was less controversy than expected.
"I was always under the impression that if the government of the day was to do the necessary explanation and articulation of what needed it to be done, it would be widely accepted, because the evidence and the data supporting this is so obvious."
Allain said that while Finn's report was shelved 13 years ago, it got municipalities and their associations talking about reform, paving the way for their support of his plan now.
Boundaries to be finalized by Jan. 1
The white paper released last month included a list of new municipal entities to be created by the mergers, based on a threshold that a community must have 4,000 people and a $200 million tax base to be considered viable.
He said he'll use that, and a municipality's dependence on unconditional grants from the province, to make decisions about the alternate proposals he's received.
"The white paper is not a bible, it's a road map," he said.
Allain said he looks favourably at discussions in Richibucto, Saint-Louis-de-Kent and nearby local service districts to go beyond his report and merge into a single entity rather than two.
He also said local service districts around Nackawic, Woodstock and Hartland are looking at joining those municipalities.
"It's spectacular to see what's happening," he said.
With boundaries finalized by Jan. 1, the next step will be starting the transition to the new entities.
Their names will be chosen by July 1 and the province will help them draft newly merged budgets by Sept. 30, which will be followed by elections in some entities in November.
"There's still a lot of work to do," Allain said.
Melanson said big questions remain to be resolved after 2022, including changes to the property tax system.