New Brunswick reforms merge dozens of local governments and rural areas
Number of local entities will be cut from 340 to 90: there will be 78 municipalities and 12 rural districts
New Brunswick is slashing the number of local government entities by forcing mergers of dozens of municipalities and neighbouring rural areas, and combining remaining rural areas into new, larger districts with elected advisory boards and taxation powers.
Around 161,000 people, or 22 per cent of the provincial population, who now live in unincorporated local service districts will find themselves residents of enlarged municipalities when the transition is complete.
The remaining local service districts will be combined into 12 rural districts with elected advisory boards that will advise the province on local tax rates and other decisions.
The Higgs government is describing it as a way to give those residents power over local issues.
"Your voice will be heard. The democratic deficit currently affecting 30 per cent of the province's population will be rectified," Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain says in a white paper released Thursday.
All told, the number of local entities will be cut from 340 to 90. There will be 78 municipalities and 12 rural districts.
"We've been talking about this for 25 years," Allain told reporters. "We've had 25 studies. The municipal associations … all told us we needed reform. We needed to move ahead."
The reform is intended to deal with a range of chronic local government problems that have been building 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.
Expanded role for commissions
Regional service commissions created a decade ago to co-ordinate some of those issues will be beefed up, with new mandates and voting rules to reduce the procedural gridlock on some votes and put limits on opting out.
The commissions, which include all municipalities and rural LSDs in their areas, will now have a role in economic development, tourism promotion, regional transportation and the cost-sharing of recreational infrastructure such as arenas.
They'll also have public safety committees to oversee policing and fire services. And the three largest commissions, anchored by Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton, will get a role in paying for homelessness, mental health and poverty reduction services.
Communities within the regions will not be able to opt out of the "mandated" services the commissions must provide, and will have to help pay for them under the changes.
A new voting formula will require support from members representing a simple majority of the population, not the current two-thirds requirement that has led to stalemates on some decisions.
Smaller municipalities affected
There are no major amalgamations involving the province's three largest cities. Saint John's boundaries remain unchanged and Moncton gains a small part of one local service district but not Dieppe or Riverview.
Fredericton will absorb several outlying adjacent areas but no nearby municipalities.
But a number of smaller municipalities will be fused together, along with some neighbouring local service districts, into larger entities. They include:
- Sackville and Dorchester
- Alma, Hillsborough and Riverside-Albert
- Blacks Harbour and St. George
- Cambridge Narrows and Gagetown
- Minto and Chipman
- Bath, Florenceville-Bristol and Centreville
- Grand Falls and Drummond
- Campbellton, Atholville and Tide Head
All the new entities will be in place in January 2023.
In local service districts that are absorbed by municipalities, there will be "increases or decreases" in property tax rates, the white papers says.
Those changes will be determined during the transition period next year and will be phased in over time.
It also says future local government mergers will no longer have to be approved by residents in plebiscites but will be approved by a new provincial commission.
Liberals see lots to weigh
Opposition parties were tepid in their reactions.
"The sense I got over the last few months with the consultations was that people were very open to some kind of change," said Liberal MLA Keith Chiasson.
"Obviously, what was announced today was a major change. So there's a lot of information shared with us and the population in general. We're going to need some time, and the population also needs some time to digest it."
Chiasson said he also didn't oppose the elimination of the plebiscite requirement.
"I don't think so, because I think a lot of communities actually wanted to work together, so I don't think we need a plebiscite to confirm what they've been asking for for years."
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said his party had questions but would have to take a closer look at the package.
Greens welcome change
The Green Party welcomed the changes. "Honestly, it's pretty comprehensive," said MLA Kevin Arseneau. "It's a good reform and a very important reform."
He said there needs to be more discussion about how to include citizens in the democratic process even more, and he added he hopes Allain will be open to adjusting some of the mergers and boundaries if there is feedback calling for that.
Allain, however, suggested he wasn't inclined to make changes.
"We have to move forward on this reform, and yes, there are going to be some questions," he said.
"However, with the consultation process we did in the last year … our plan is what people were saying, and hence the reason why we're here today. There are no big surprises with some of the entities that are proposed here today."
Next elections delayed
The next municipal elections will be pushed back from 2025 to 2026 because some of the new entities will need elections or byelections scheduled for November 2022.
Major changes to local government financing won't happen until the new municipal entities are in place but will take place before 2025.
Among possible changes at that time will be passing on the cost of rural roads to their new local entities, which the white paper says would lead to tax increases.
Other sought-after changes, including exempting apartments and other secondary properties from the provincial portion of property taxes, were also put off until then.