New Brunswick

N.B. requires less local rule: Finn

New Brunswick must slash the number of local governments to roughly 55 and consolidate services or risk jeopardizing the province's future development, according to the former commissioner on local governance.

Future depends on cutting governments to 50 from 421, former commissioner says

New Brunswick must slash the number of local governments closer to 50 from 421 and consolidate services or risk jeopardizing the province's future development, according to the former commissioner on local governance.

Jean-Guy Finn, who led a public commission on the future of local governance that culminated in a 200-page report in 2008, said the next New Brunswick government must push forward on drastic reforms to how citizens are governed on a local level.

The tough policy tonic being offered by Finn does not depart from his commission report, which was shelved by Premier Shawn Graham hours after it was released.

Finn writes in an election analysis for CBC News that the number of local governing bodies must be cut to between 50 and 55 from more than 400 that exist now.

There are 101 incorporated municipalities, three rural communities, 267 local service districts and 50 additional taxing authorities that total 421 types of government representing a dwindling population of fewer than 750,000 people.

And failing to heed his advice could cost the province significantly in the future.

"Whichever political party forms the government after Sept. 27, the issue of local governance sustainability must be tackled," Finn writes.

"Failure to do so will negatively impact the availability and quality of essential local services in many areas of the province. It will also seriously jeopardize New Brunswick's future economic and social development."

Public report

Finn's report was the first massive investigation into the way New Brunswick organizes its local services since the Edward Byrne commission in the 1960s.

The Byrne report led to one of Liberal Premier Louis J. Robichaud's signature achievements, the policy of Equal Opportunity.

That policy ended the system of county governments, which led to a handful of wealthy communities followed by a patchwork of poor, largely northern and francophone regions.

Finn writes that Byrne's landmark report did create a series of unintended consequences in the last half century.

He notes that proliferation of small "mostly non-viable" municipalities and unincorporated communities, the uncontrolled sprawl and ribbon development around cities, and the "overly fragmented local decision-making."

Citizens living in local service districts do not elect a council, and all their spending decisions are made by the minister of local government.

New municipalities

Finn's plan would see that the 50 to 55 municipalities would each have a minimum of 4,000 residents, or approximately $200 million in property tax assessment revenue.

Plus, he argues the New Brunswick government should hand over additional property tax room so local governments could collect more money to pay for services.

Those larger municipalities would then collaborate on the delivery of certain services, such as policing, land-use planning and economic development.

Finn writes that no more than 12 regional service districts, each covering two to nine municipalities, should be created.

"These actions will not weaken or take away our local communities; quite the opposite in fact — the consolidation of local government and service sharing will provide the much needed opportunity to provide a sustainable future for our communities, by building capacity," Finn writes.

Government inaction

When the Liberal government distanced itself from the original Finn report, Graham said it was because the provincial government couldn't stomach the estimated $90 million cost of implementing the report during the recession.

The local governance commissioner also warned politicians that his report could not be treated as a policy buffet, taking the easiest or most political tenable recommendations and ignoring the contentious elements.

The two main parties in the New Brunswick election, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, have each rolled out policy reforms on issues such as property tax reform.

Both traditional parties, however, have avoided commenting on what they plan to do with Finn's original report if they are elected on Sept. 27.

Economic concern

Graham told CBC News on Thursday that he believes Finn brought forward an important report in 2008 and he's encouraged by the debate among municipalities and local service districts about governance issues.

The Liberal leader, however, emphasized that local government reform must take a backseat to reviving the economy.

"Until we are out of the recession, to invest the tax dollars [needed to make the Finn reforms], we do not have the budget flexibility to do that," Graham said on a provincewide call-in program.

"It is going to take tax dollars to implement the changes. Our focus is on creating jobs."