New Brunswick

PCs promise new taxation powers for municipalities

A Progressive Conservative government would hand over new taxation powers to municipalities to give them a greater role in the economy, party leader Blaine Higgs promised Friday.

Party leader Blaine Higgs would also be more cautious about funding new arenas, theatres

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs says if elected his government would try to give municipalities more powers. (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

A Progressive Conservative government would hand over new taxation powers to municipalities to give them a greater role in the economy, party leader Blaine Higgs promised Friday.

Higgs said if he's elected premier on Sept. 24, he'll give cities, towns, villages and rural communities "greater powers over taxation and property assessment."

"I want our municipalities to be full partners, not junior partners but full partners in building our economy," Higgs said at the construction site for a new community centre in the rural community of Hanwell.

"Today I'm committing to building a new partnership with our communities and to put that new relationship into law."

It's a reform that some municipal leaders have been clamouring for for years. Earlier this week, the mayors of New Brunswick's eight cities called for changes that in many cases line up with what Higgs is promising.

Last year, the Liberal government overhauled legislation to give municipalities more freedom to offer businesses economic-development incentives, such as free land.

Higgs called that "minor, little changes just to say 'we're doing something.'"

But some of the PC leader's promises were vague — and could lead to some surprising outcomes.

He said within a year of taking office, he would study how to offer municipalities a greater role in the property assessment process — which he said might allow them to raise taxes on businesses.

"The municipality could be in a position to change their tax rates and put more tax onto businesses or industries," he said.

Liberal campaign spokesperson Greg Byrne said in an email statement that Higgs "was very vague today on what he'll do and how much it costs, like every day so far on this campaign."

Byrne said the Liberal platform will include a promise to "review and consider, in partnership with municipal governments, reforming the taxation and balance of power relationships between the province and municipalities."

PCs would promote regional services

Higgs also said to encourage municipalities to share regional services, a PC government would refuse to provide money for a municipal project that would duplicate a similar facility in a neighbouring community.

If such duplication is proposed, "government doesn't fund it," he said. "You can't stop a community if they say 'we've got lots of money and we can afford to do this on our own' and they do it. It's nothing we can control, but we don't need to put money in it."

The previous PC government of David Alward, in which Higgs served as finance minister, created a new system of regional service commissions in 2012 to better co-ordinate the delivery of local services among neighbouring municipalities and rural areas.

It was seen as a better option than forcing municipalities to amalgamate against their will.

Commissions lack power

But many municipalities have complained the commissions lack the powers to do much more than co-ordinate garbage collection.

There has been a series of disputes between large municipalities and neighbouring communities over how to share the costs of owning and running facilities such as arenas and theatres.

Last week, the City of Campbellton said it needed nearby communities to help cover the cost of the city's Memorial Civic Centre, which is used by people region-wide. It was closed for the summer because of a $1.2 million shortfall.

Higgs said he wants municipalities to be full partners in building the economy. (Radio-Canada)

Hanwell Mayor Chris Melvin, who was at Higgs's announcement Friday, said he supports the regional service commission model but "that organization needs to be empowered even more."

Otherwise municipalities will never agree among themselves on how to share costs, he said.

"Let's regionalize the obvious services."

Melvin said so far, the Tories are the only party offering workable proposals to municipalities.

Higgs would respect Equal Opportunity

Higgs said that even with greater municipal powers over taxation, the province would still play a role in "equalizing revenue" to ensure smaller, less wealthy municipalities can offer a reasonable level of services without resorting to crippling tax increases.

"Equal Opportunity demands that, and we will respect those principles," he said, referring to seminal tax reforms by the 1960s Liberal government of Louis Robichaud.

"But equality does not demand inflexibility, and each of our cities, towns, villages and rural communities have unique strengths that led to unique opportunities."

Higgs also said he would share a portion of the revenue from legalized cannabis sales with municipalities facing higher costs from policing.

"They do deserve a portion of that revenue," he said.

And he said he would talk to municipalities about allowing them to impose hotel levies to raise revenue.

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