Municipal Affairs minister welcomes more councils discussing governance models

Anna Allen might not be a fortune teller, but the mayor of Windsor, N.S., has known for some time what her community needed to do.

Not long after she was elected as a municipal councillor for the first time in 1991, Allen started thinking her area would benefit from considering amalgamation.

For years it was an uphill battle. Few people supported the idea.

That changed during the last municipal election, when a citizens’ group got together to push the issue. It ultimately helped elect a slate of candidates in Windsor, including Allen, and the neighbouring Municipality of the District of West Hants that were also supportive of the idea.

On April 1, the Region of Windsor and West Hants Municipality will become a reality, the product of several years of collaboration between two municipalities that have not always successfully worked together in the past.

Windsor Mayor Anna Allen and her council are preparing for a merger later this year with the Municipality of the District of West Hants. (CBC)

Allen said the time for consolidation was right because both councils are in a good financial position and have something to offer to the merger.

She thinks part of the reason for the shift is because there are enough examples of consolidation in the province now that people realize it doesn’t mean the loss of community identity.

“People still know where Parrsboro is,” she said of the former town that is now part of the Municipality of Cumberland County.

“Nobody is saying, ‘Oh, Bedford is gone. We lost Bedford.’ No you didn’t. It does not disappear.”

The conversations that have been happening between Windsor and West Hants are happening in other parts of the province.

The three councils in Yarmouth County have started meeting to consider how they might govern better. Talks could also happen with the towns of Shelburne and Lockeport and Municipality of the District of Shelburne.

Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter, whose constituency includes the new municipality that’s taking shape, would like to see more councils talking about how they can maximize resources for the benefit of residents, regardless of what form it takes.

“Your tax base is only so big,” he said. “There’s only so many ways to raise revenue and to get revenue.”

Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter says his department will work with any municipal councils that want to consider changes to governance models. (CBC)

What Porter won’t do is force those talks on anyone. The province will be a willing partner, he said, but only after municipalities have agreed on a plan to work together.

In the case of Windsor and West Hants, provincial support meant providing $1.5 million for transition work and passing legislation.

It’s early days in Yarmouth County, but right now the province’s role is providing information to help the three councils answer questions and determine what change might mean for their residents.

“We have to know what the benefits are for any of us,” said Danny Muise, warden for the Municipality of the District of Argyle.

“We want to know the pros and cons of getting into a situation like this.”

Shelburne talks held up

Meanwhile, talks in Shelburne are held up, in part, because the district has concerns about inheriting the town’s precarious finances.

Council for the district has called on the province to provide financial guarantees before they will discuss consolidation. That’s unlikely to happen.

“There’s not one allotment of money in any bucket anywhere that says, ‘Municipal Affairs and the Government of Nova Scotia has X to give,'” said Porter.

“That’s not how this works.”

The council for the Town of Shelburne says if it cannot consolidate with neighbouring municipalities it would be forced to apply for dissolution. (Robert Short/CBC)

Allen recently attended a public meeting in Shelburne to outline the process the councils in her community have followed. She said the fears people have there are similar to what she heard in her own community as they approached consolidation.

“Change is very hard for some people and I understand that, and it’s hard unless you know all the answers,” she said.

“Some of these fears are warranted and some can be explained and examples given.” 

‘Our people are looking for more’

Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood, who is also president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, said councils in rural communities are trying to balance challenges such as population decline and infrastructure needs with the service expectations of residents.

“Our people are looking for more,” she said. “We are trying to do that, of course, with less.”

Mood said the talks with her council and their neighbours are motivated not by financial problems, but an understanding that it would be better to consider options before one of the three municipalities found itself in a bad situation.

“I’m not a fan of waiting to do anything because you have to.”

The Town of Shelburne has reached the point where it has to do something. If amalgamation talks fail to materialize and produce a merger, Mayor Karen Mattatall has said the town would be forced to apply for dissolution.

Porter said his department has been working with Shelburne for the last year as it struggles with its financial position. But if a merger is going to happen — or even be discussed — that effort must come from the councils, he said.

“I think it is vitally important that municipalities right across the province are talking to their neighbours.”

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