Councils in the towns of Pictou, New Glasgow, Stellarton and Municipality of Pictou County voted to give the go-ahead to a key piece of the memorandum of understanding during four separate meetings Thursday.
All four councils approved the financial plan for the new amalgamated government which included a list of pre-conditions from each of the four municipal units.
The preconditions stipulated by the towns include no material change to the current general residential tax rate in the former Municipality of Pictou County, no decrease in the level of services for the former towns, all pre-existing debts will be maintained as financial burden of the former municipal units, all pre-existing reserves will be maintained by the former municipal units and repayment of the long-term debt associated with the Albion Business park will be funded through the regional tax base.
After more than a year of preparation, this is the last piece of the puzzle for the municipal units before it is presented to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board for its approval. Separate reports on human resources and governance were completed as part of the proposal as well as new electoral boundaries. All of the documentation will be posted on the NSUARB or onepictoucounty.ca websites in the near future.
The review board will host its own public meetings on the topic in March and the MOU steering committee will host its own information sessions in the next few weeks. The public will have its own voice on in May when a plebiscite will held for residents in the four municipal units. The municipal units have until June 20 to formally withdraw from the MOU agreement. The towns of Trenton and Westville have decided not to be part of the amalgamation.
Here is what happened at Thursday’s council meetings:
In Stellarton, about 20 members of the public attended the meeting, but none were allowed to speak.
The four councillors voted in favour of a motion to approve the execution of the letter of intent, while Mayor Joe Gennoe voted against it.
In a vote regarding the pre-conditions and steering committee recommendations motion, both Gennoe and Coun. Simon Lawand voted against it, but the motion was carried 3-2.
“I want to say I have a lot of concerns about the document,” Lawand said before the vote took place.
“There was no time to review this document,” he said, adding that the complicated document was only given to councillors two days prior.
“Unfortunately I cannot discuss the concerns I have because the document is deemed to be confidential, which is an issue of its own because the public is not allowed to know what is in the document until it’s signed, sealed and delivered. I will be voting against it, but again, I cannot give my reasons.”
New Glasgow council unanimously voted, in front of a crowd of 11, to approve the recommendation report from the MOU Steering Committee.
Coun. Henderson Paris thanked the committee for their hard work during the process so far.
“Tonight, this gives us another chance to step forward, hopefully together. Don't get me wrong; it would’ve been ideal to have the other two municipal units with us in this process. That is very sad and highly unfortunate. However, we, the rest of us, must move forward in what we view as ultimately the right and necessary direction in this process.”
Paris stressed that the vote is just another step, and the residents will have the final say.
Coun. Clyde Fraser talked about a recent Municipal Alcohol Project meeting with youth and the energy they showed, adding that council is “doing this for them.”
“I do have reservations about some things in here, but I think we’ve got a chance to further deal with those,” Coun. Clyde Fraser said.
County Council has approved a letter of intent regarding the MOU and accepted the steering committees recommendations and preconditions.
Twelve councillors and Warden Ron Baillie were present for the vote.
They held a lengthy in camera session first followed by a vote in open council. About two dozen people were on hand for the public meeting.
The vote was 12-1 with Chester Dewar voting against the steering committee recommendations and letter of intent.
Many councillors said they would be voting in favour of the letter and steering committee recommendations so that the public could have its say during a plebiscite in May.
Coun. Robert Parker said the document shows that taxes will be lower for residents but it's based on a model, not real management.
"The problem is I simply don't believe it and I have to go with my gut feeling," said Parker. "It is based on models and a big example of this is the Wellness Centre. We had models of what the debt might be and now we are paying for it."
Councillors encouraged everyone to find out more about the recommendations so they are prepared to vote in May.
"I trust the wisdom of people and that is why I will be staking my vote on how they vote," said Coun. David Parker.
Councillors said they won't be selling the proposals but rather giving the people the facts and letting them decide.
Pictou Mayor Joe Hawes recalls a meeting in the spring of 2005 just a few months after he had first been elected mayor. The other municipal leaders from Pictou County were there and he said to them that he thought they should all look at some form of regional governance.
Eleven years later, he presided over the meeting in Pictou in which his council took a step closer to that goal, voting unanimously to approve both the adoption of a MOU Steering Committee Recommendation Report and approval of a letter of intent between the applicant municipal units who have filed a conditional and voluntary application to amalgamate and the Minister of Municipal Affairs.
“I feel like our work has come to fruition,” he said, following the meeting. “It’ll be up to the people to decide now. It truly is a step forward for Pictou County.”
There were a number of people in attendance. While none were directly opposed to the MOU, some said they would like more information and better communication.
Hawes assured that documents and public meetings will be held before the May 28 plebiscite.