ANOTHER LOOK COLUMN BY AL MUIR
Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations Minister Mark Furey's announcement of the withdrawal of provincial funds from the Pictou County governance study was greeted with a large measure of hand wringing in some quarters, in others, with relief that long suffering taxpayers had dodged a combined $300,000-cost tax bullet.
In a related, widely published Op-Ed piece, Furey characterized the amalgamation of the town of Liverpool and Queens County as an "undeniable success." The first notable point is that union did not rely on a taxpayer-funded study to identify what would result in improved efficiency and lower costs. Like the other Nova Scotia municipalities currently looking at new governance models it occurred with in-house resources.
Given that three of the six units in Pictou County have now embarked on an in-house review, it is not just idle speculation that the extra expenditures involved in the study actually held back the process. Westville's insistence that they could not afford their portion of the cost should have been a clear signal that a co-operative in-house solution, like the one undertaken in Queens County, was in order.
There is a lingering impression that individual units object to closer ties out of fear of loss of identity, but fear of increased taxes is closer to the pulse of most residents. In the case of Queens, John Leefe, the architect of that amalgamation, had this to say, "I know here in Queens the basic question that everybody wanted to know as we moved forward with amalgamation was how is it going to affect my tax rate. Are my taxes going to go up?" It's not the ‘A’ word they are afraid of, it’s the ‘T’ word.
That potential $300,000 tax bill was proceeded in Pictou County by plans for the construction of a new sports complex. If taxpayer concerns were adequately taken into consideration, it would have included a rational plan for phasing out other rinks before the first sod was turned.
The second notable point is that according to Leefe, Queens saved $750,000 in its first year. That came not only with the loss of 25 per cent of elected representatives (savings most of us like to hear about) but the loss of 26 per cent of the municipal work force (savings many would rather talk about behind closed doors). If the strength of worker's unions and their contracts in the six units of Pictou County are no greater than those in Queens it would not be unrealistic to expect work force losses in the range of 35 to 40 per cent if a similar approach to Queens is taken.
Many Nova Scotian municipalities currently looking at closer ties favour a gentler approach, call it amalgamation light. In the short term, they are committed to job retention, but in the long term they might consider job losses by attrition if conditions warrant. Naturally, savings under this model are considerably lower, with the added qualifier that tax rates will begin to escalate sooner than if the slash and burn Queens County model is adopted. The lack of stomach for this approach contributes, in large part, to comments similar to Kentville's Mayor Dave Corkum, president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, in his recent statement: "Amalgamation hasn't proved across North America that it's a financial savings." Judging by past performance, there is little reason to expect Pictou County's six units will be one of the exceptions to that general rule.
While anticipated tax saving, real or projected, is raised as a selling point for amalgamation the flip side of the coin is the expectation that in the longer term, a larger, leaner, more focused, singular unit will attract businesses, filling vacant commercial properties and resulting in a broader tax base for infrastructure improvements. In the case of Cape Breton Regional Municipality that has not been the case. Halifax’s favourable situation, to a large degree, is an extension of the continuing exodus of people from rural to urban areas.
That brings up the third and most disappointing point involving the possibility of denying Furey's comments on the Queens success. In the 15 years since amalgamation, according to Census Canada, the population of Queens has dropped 12.2 per cent. The recent closure of the Liverpool Bowater Mersey plant, the bankruptcy of Blue Wave Seafoods in Port Mouton and the closure of the Valley Credit union in Caledonia has left Queens struggling to maintain its current tax rate.
While slash and burn amalgamation gives a degree of breathing room for a period it will do little to negate the much stronger forces that are at work in our economy. While changes in municipal governance are a step up from reorganizing the deck chairs on the Titanic, hopefully other problems will eventually begin to see the levels of attention lavished on the lesser problem of amalgamation.
Al Muir is a local businessman and resident of Plymouth who keeps a close eye on the political front, both local and nationally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org