May 05, 2016

Truth or Consequences: Municipal Governance for the 21st Century

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We can’t afford our lifestyle – that’s the problem. It’s well known – and well documented.

The solution need not mean wholesale cutbacks, but it does mean doing things differently – and having the courage to act going forward.

That’s the message I delivered to municipal leaders at the recent Structural Reform Workshop in Truro on April 8, 2016.

Too many of our municipalities are quickly heading to the edge of a fiscal cliff. Our current structures can’t be sustained. Without change, citizens will suffer. Communities will witness further decline.

The present challenge is clear.

Declining populations in many municipalities. Outmigration. Shrinking revenues. Increasing operating costs. Ticking infrastructure time bombs as the need for capital replacements collide with empty bank accounts. And understandable opposition from fewer taxpayers to more tax increases.

The need for municipal reform has been well documented - and should be well understood.

The catalogue of studies is impressive - a wealth of knowledge and insight.

The Pictou County Municipal Coordination Study of 1969. The Graham Commission Report of 1974. The Task Force on Local Government Report of 1992. The Towns Task Force Report of 2012. The Provincial-Municipal Fiscal Review of 2013. And, of course, the Ivany Report of 2014.

And there have been others, all saying the same thing - the status quo is not sustainable. It’s debilitating – impeding our progress.

Halifax is seemingly doing very well, as evidenced by the many cranes puncturing the skyline. The pressing issues today are focused mainly in rural Nova Scotia.

The problems – and, as Ivany noted, the opportunities – are mostly in rural Nova Scotia.

So, what are the opportunities?

Clearly, we can make better use of substantial natural assets that reside in our ocean, in our forests, on our farms and in building more businesses capable of selling to the world. Our people are innovative and resilient, capable of building businesses which appeal to a world-wide market.

To realize our potential local governments must do a better job of marshalling modern infrastructure and services at lower cost. This must happen in order to attract businesses and investment, create jobs and grow our population.

It won’t be easy but the challenge and the need are clearly defined.

We’ve already proven progress is possible!

Halifax and Sydney experienced forced amalgamations. Municipalities in Queens amalgamated voluntarily. Hantsport, Springhill and Canso recognized they had no future as free standing municipalities and have opted for dissolution.  Other neighbouring municipalities are successfully sharing infrastructure and services in innovative ways.

While this is progress, it’s too slow and costly. The world is moving much more rapidly than our pace of change. 

Our municipal leaders are closest to their constituents. They hear on a daily basis about the need for clean water, waste disposal, good recreational facilities, police and fire protection.  The stuff of day-to-day living and grassroots constituency work.

Citizens may not get excited about “streamlined government”.  They do, however, understand affordability.  They know the present system isn’t sustainable without real change.

And they know, for example, that federal governments will continue to make infrastructure funding available to municipalities with a winning game plan. They know that small and medium-sized business is most likely to locate where redtape is minimal and quality infrastructure is readily available for the right price.  They know that the Province is motivated and committed to supporting real structural reform.

Taxpayers increasingly recognize that our existing structures – 50+ municipalities, each with their own bureaucracies – are not sustainable. They also know that they can’t afford significant tax increases that will be necessary if their municipalities, on their own, attempt to take on the expensive new infrastructure projects required to retain citizens and attract investment.

In our globalized world, there are many things we can’t control. Delivering high quality infrastructure and services at the lowest possible cost is decidedly within our control.

Citizens don’t want more talk.  They want action – that produces vibrant and prosperous communities all across Nova Scotia.

A wise person once said: “The best way to predict the future is to go out and invent it.”

Let’s get a plan – and deliver the municipal governance citizens are expecting for the 21st century.


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Cox & Palmer publications are intended to provide information of a general nature only and not legal advice. The information presented is current to the date of publication and may be subject to change following the publication date.