Bridgetown Mayor Horace Hurlburt checks the time before pounding the gavel to open Monday evening’s special council meeting that ultimately ended in a motion to seek to dissolve the Town of Bridgetown. The town has held several public meetings over the past few weeks. Right is interim Bridgetown CAO Kevin Matheson.
(Editor’s Note: Spectator reporter Heather Killen takes a look at the past few weeks of meetings as Bridgetown council and residents considered the town’s future. Monday evening council voted to start the process of dissolution.)
By Heather Killen
Now that the ice has broken, the Town of Bridgetown is able to move forward.
Late last week council called a special meeting to take place on March 31, at the Bridgetown fire hall, to openly debate a motion regarding the town's future governance.
This special meeting was the third in a series of public consultations held in Bridgetown during the past few weeks. While dissolution of the town’s status has been forefront on people’s minds for sometime, the open discussion had not taken place in a public forum until the Town of Springhill broke the ice in early March.
On March 18, Bridgetown residents were called to the local legion to hear a bleak update on their town’s financial status. A week later, on March 25, residents were asked to provide their feedback during the regular council meeting at the Bridgetown fire hall.
Mayor Horace Hurlburt opened this meeting by admitting that council was looking towards dissolving the town’s status. A few days later, by Friday, he announced that after hearing feedback from residents, the council was ready to make the decision.
"Nothing has been finalized, but there's no point in sitting on the fence," he said late last week. "We've taken a serious look and gotten feedback from the residents. The bottom line is it's time to move on."
During the regular council meeting held March 25, residents were given a detailed, long-term financial forecast that followed up on information previously presented at the March 18 public meeting.
Despite the aggressive initiatives that have been introduced, there`s an estimated shortfall likely in the 2013/2014 budget and another deficit projected in the 2014/2015 budget.
Residents heard there is no room to raise taxes, or cut back on expenses in order to generate new revenue. A grim overview was given concerning the town’s ability to meet its current service and financial obligations.
The town infrastructure is failing and there is no reserve to fall back on, or ability to finance upgrades. While the town’s debt ratio is expected to fall at 12.76 per cent, within the province’s acceptable parameter of 15 per cent, there is no room finance upgrades to town infrastructure.
More Debt Expected
At the regular council meeting on March 25, other officials echoed these initial statements. Harold Duffett, auditor, presented highlights from the town’s 2012-2013 audited financial statements.
He noted that as of Jan.28, the town is showing a deficit of about $22,000 from last year’s budget that will be carried over into this year’s budget. He also noted a net decrease of $284,000 in the town’s $2.5 million debt.
Mark Peck, of Service Nova Scotia Municipal Relations, also presented a draft budget using the province’s debt affordability software. This accounting software is a tool that offers councils various budget scenarios to help determine long-term financial consequences.
According to Peck, using the current figures and factoring in the annual inflation rate, the town will continue to accumulate debt each year. Even if council introduces another significant tax hike this year, this will only stabilize the town for the short term.
The ongoing annual financial pressures are likely to result in an accumulative deficit each year. As there is no room to cut costs, or save on services, and council agreed another tax hike is not an agreeable option. Council is left to consider governance options.
Officials also discussed the process required to make an application to dissolve the town’s status. This procedure would involve extensive negotiations between the town, the County of Annapolis, and the province.
The process involves a number of hearings and public meetings and officials noted that it would take about 12 months to finalize any decision to dissolve, so that council will need to bring forward an operating budget for 2014-2015.
The floor was opened to invite comments from the audience as part of the citizen’s forum. Several people spoke in support of the council and the tough decisions it now faces.
Overall everyone spoke in support of the community and its assets. Some spoke in favour of starting a process towards dissolving the boundaries to merge with the county, or possibly expand the town boundaries to include the school’s catchment area.
The consistent theme in many of the comments was centered in how the greater community is connected and how there is shared concern for the assets built up over time.
Several members of the business community urged council to take a thoughtful look at options, and carefully consider all information before making the next step. Many expressed concern for the future of community assets, and a few presenters still talked about the opportunities that are possible for the community.
One resident noted that in its 200 years, Bridgetown has faced good times and bad times and it has always pulled through. It may not continue a town, but it will always survive as a community.