THE VIEW FROM HERE BY LANA MACEACHERN
We blew it.
There’s no other way to describe the finale to the three-year roller coaster ride of trying to get a governance study off the ground in Pictou County.
Municipal Relations Minster Mark Furey announced this week that the province was withdrawing its offer of funding for a study to look at the way our five towns and the county are currently run and identify cost savings and efficiencies.
“It’s very clear there is not a consensus among the councils or even within some councils on how to move the six municipal units forward together on municipal governance change,” Furey said in a news release.
The idea of a governance study was originally proposed by the Pictou County Chamber of Commerce, which astutely recognized there had to be a better way of doing things. The province offered to contribute up to $150,000 toward the cost of looking into possible governance models and shared services, if the six municipalities would each pitch in $25,000. The kicker was they had to agree.
And that’s when the squabbling began. The municipal councils couldn’t agree on how to pay for the study – how to split the bill or whether the municipalities should be contributing anything at all. Westville said it couldn’t pay. Stellarton said it wouldn’t pay.
Last year it looked like the governance study would finally get somewhere. In the months following a municipal election in which the study was a key issue, all six councils came on board.
But once the funding hurdle was cleared, it seems our municipal representatives couldn’t agree on the study’s terms of reference. Those terms were officially filed with the province last fall but Furey says what he’d heard of late speaking with the individual councils on how they wanted to proceed wasn’t jibing with what was on paper.
You can’t blame the province for throwing its hands in the air and saying, “Enough.” Municipal Relations has shown great patience in dealing with what must at times have seemed like a group of children who can’t figure out how to play well together. All it takes is for one or two to disagree on what the rules of the game should be to create a stalemate. Or for someone to be reluctant to share the ball out of fear that they might not get it back right away or in the exact same condition.
Most of the participants in this game, I believe, were willing to play fair. The few who weren’t know who they are and I hope for all of our sakes that they have a plan B, because that mentality isn’t going to work here anymore. With the loss of hundreds of Michelin jobs and subsequent loss of families from the county and towns, things are only going to get worse economically. When Springhill’s municipal council announced it could no longer afford to keep operating as a town and would merge with Cumberland County, Furey said about a dozen other municipalities in the province are facing similar financial problems. How much do you want to bet at least one is in Pictou County?
Some people were scared of the governance study from the get-go because they couldn’t see past their blinders. They couldn’t see past the “A” word. It was never an amalgamation study. It was a study to identify the things that could be done that would save money and increase efficiency. Some of those things might have involved joint purchasing and sharing services. Some of those things probably would have involved some form of amalgamation. None of those things would have been mandatory. No one was committing to implementing some or all of the recommendations. The point is, it would have just been a list of ideas, suggestions. It would have then been up to the municipalities to look at the list and say, “Let’s try items 1, 4 and 7,” or “Let’s go the whole way and amalgamate,” or “It was a nice exercise but none of these ideas work for us.”
The point is, the municipal councils would have had data and options. Knowledge is power, people. Without the study, we have the status quo. Look at the number of vacant commercial properties, look at the current tax rates, look at the state of municipal roads, look at the municipalities’ financial statements and tell me, is it working? No. We have the realization that our direction must change but no map showing where the other roads are.
What we may end up with is a mishmash of piecemeal agreements and co-operation; two municipalities here and there merging some services or sharing some costs, without knowing the bigger picture. Inevitably, someone will get left behind. In the unique situation we have here with several municipalities in a relationship of close proximity and yes, to some degree, interdependence, that will hurt everyone.
Lana MacEachern is a former reporter turned librarian from Caribou River who still keeps her hand in the writing world with freelance articles.