By Stephen Hawboldt
The offhanded remark, “amalgamation will never happen,” was made recently in an unguarded moment by a local politician. Whether these words reflected the beliefs of the speaker or merely frustration aimed at colleagues doesn’t really matter. The comment underscores the systemic biases against a rigorous review of the delivery of local government services in Nova Scotia.
Most municipal politicians are strongly committed to their municipality and their communities. They firmly believe that their community is unique and special. That is often why they sought elected office in the first place.
While these may be admirable traits, they may also reflect a strong bias to the status quo. Too frequently, this translates into the unwillingness or inability to grasp how the future of a community might be improved by seeing things differently. Once one starts down this defensive road, the thought processes can quickly become so strongly entrenched that vigorous and emotional defense of the status quo is the only option.
In Pictou County, only long-term residents know where the boundaries of New Glasgow, Stellarton, Trenton, Westville, and Pictou begin and end. Add urban sprawl from Pictou County and the boundaries are completely artificial. After decades of endless talk, these five municipal units very reluctantly agreed to investigate amalgamation.
This study is being undertaken over the vigorous opposition of several elected officials from each of the jurisdictions. Some county officials fear that rural taxes will rise while the towns don’t want to lose their, “unique identities.” The geographic, economic, and social reality that the communities are already joined seems to be lost on some of their local politicians.
The amalgamation of municipal units may or may not be the best option in Pictou or any other grouping of municipal units in the province. These questions cannot be addressed without a comprehensive review of all governance options. The review must be independent and aimed at providing the best possible information to elected officials and the citizens they represent.
Unfortunately for the municipal and provincial taxpayers in Nova Scotia, there are not enough politicians willing to explore these options. The Regional Municipality of Queens is a resounding success because the local municipal leaders understood that the status quo was not an option for the former County of Queens and the Town of Liverpool. These leaders could envisage a new future for the communities and were able to determine the best way to achieve this goal.
Unfortunately, taxpayers in the five municipal units in the geographic area of Annapolis County have yet to exhibit the gold standard of leadership that drove the process in Queens. While the protocols for regional cooperation being signed among the village of Lawrencetown and the three towns of Middleton, Bridgetown, and Annapolis Royal and Annapolis County is an important first step, it is not enough. In fact, the agreement could easily be turned into dynamic inaction in which the municipal units talk, talk, and talk but accomplish nothing of substance. The five governments must quickly sign a second agreement to fund an independent study of the best way to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of municipal services in the long term.
Whoever forms the new government in Nova Scotia must tackle some difficult challenges. Among these is the inefficient, cumbersome, and very expensive delivery of municipal services. Provincial taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize municipal politicians protecting their fiefdoms.
If municipal units cannot take these first steps, the province should, and likely will, force the issue. The only people opposed to this independent review may be some of the local politicians who fear what might be revealed to their voters.
The words, “amalgamation will never happen,” should not be heard until an independent review of the options supports that conclusion. If municipal politicians can’t or won’t take the lead, the province must.
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