Berwick on an upward spiral: mayor

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Jennifer Hoegg
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Financial indicator score a snapshot of the past, not current picture in Berwick

Don Clarke

A snapshot of a bad time is a good way to describe the province’s municipal indicator score for Berwick.  

The financial conditions report issued May 15 shows the town’s scores did not meet the town threshold in six areas: three year change in tax base, commercial property assessment, residential tax effort, deficits in last five years, operating reserved and undepreciated assets.

“My message to most citizens is I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Mayor Don Clarke said. “We think these indicators are valuable. It’s tools that you can use to analyze where you stand and maybe where you compare.”

However, the scores are based on the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Early in 2011, the Larsen meat processing plant closed in Berwick – a significant blow to both the town’s tax base and to the town-owned electric utility – and the town had to dip into its operating reserves.

“We were at the bottom of our economic spiral,” Clarke said. ““We hope that was the worst case scenario for Berwick.”

Read how the other municipalities in Kings County fared here.

 

Change for the better

Berwick’s financial picture has changed quite a bit in the past three years.  Both Clarke and finance director Greg Towne said a similar snapshot done today would look very different.  

Expenditures have been tightened, Towne said. Policing costs have been reduced, as the town moved to a more rural policing model; services are being shared with the county; and staffing levels have been reduced

“This is what the situation was in terms of 2012,” Towne said. “In terms of trends, Berwick is performing quite a bit better.”

One indicator that hasn’t budged much is the commercial tax indicator. While Eden Valley’s poultry plant replaced Larsen’s on the tax roll, residential assessment growth has increased, Towne said, so the percentages have stayed roughly the same – under the town threshold. 

“Who says that 20 per cent of your assessment has to be commercial to be viable?” Towne said, noting some of the thresholds are arbitrary. 

“It’s a good scale for the town. Berwick’s a healthy community. We’ve got lots of great commercial stores in town. We don’t have empty stores. It’s all relative.”

A growth in property assessment hasn’t been easy to deal with, however, Clarke said.

 “We’re finding this year’s budget deliberations a little different,” Clarke said.

“When you’re assessment is up, it means (with) everything we share with our municipal partners based on uniform assessment, we pay more.”

Clarke said Berwick has also lost money from a provincial equalization grant.

 

Town status secure, for now

Berwick won’t be the next Hantsport – even if Eden Valley were to close. Clarke said he doesn’t have any concern about that.

 “Everyone is vulnerable. Berwick is vulnerable,” Towne added.

“If Eden Valley were to leave it would be horrible. We would have to make significant changes, but we would survive.”

 However, because of the changes Berwick has made on its expenditure side, the impact wouldn’t be as large.

“There is a definite penalty to being a town,” Clarke said. Towns take care of their own roads, while most roads in rural municipalities are a provincial responsibility.

“It’s a little bit skewed in favour of rural municipalities. If you’re in trouble, there’s some benefit to becoming a rural municipality.

“Why don’t we level the whole playing field first before we decide who should and shouldn’t be a town?”

The town continues to be proactive, Clarke said, to continue it’s upward economic spiral.

“Our long-term plan is to continue to work towards economic development. We’re full partners in the new REN, which replaced the RDA, and hired our own community development officer,” Clarke said.

“There are people that will tell you that municipal governments can’t be the driver. You can allow the conditions to allow the entrepreneur, the private business to expand or locate in your area.” 

Geographic location: Eden Valley

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