Martin Bell
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Goverance Initiatives - Amalgamation

During amalgamation, two or more municipal units willingly come together to cooperate with each other and diversify or expand their business activities. An amalgamation is distinct from a merger because neither of the combining municipal units survives as a legal entity; although they may keep their community names. We are told Nova Scotia is facing challenging demographic and economic trends which have placed some of our municipal units in financial distress. This provincial government is saying that in the face of an aging population, out-migration, reduced labour pool and a shrinking tax base, dissolution of some of our smaller, rural municipal units may become an unavoidable fact of life.

Amalgamation has garnered some traction amongst citizen advocacy groups interested in streamlining local government and reducing what is perceived to be a disproportionate tax burden for the services received. When you consider that about sixty-two cents of every dollar collected goes to fund provincial and other mandatory expenses, the perception becomes clearer. I believe that as tempting as amalgamation may seem to some, it may fail to offer the benefits hoped for by many and may ultimately result in a less-responsive local government with less representation. In some ways it may lead to long term savings but the upfront costs arising from amalgamation may come as a shock to some.

I believe that amalgamations may not be beneficial to all residents. When municipalities amalgamate, some duplication is obviously eliminated. In particular, the number of councillors and bureaucrats may be reduced. However the cost savings of reducing five, six or even ten councillors may be far less when considering the harmonization of salaries and benefits awarded to the staff of amalgamating municipal units.

I believe amalgamation may not achieve the "economies of scale" hoped for, but rather may merely avoid insolvency for the town’s structure by spreading the operating costs of the dissolving unit over a wider tax base of a rural district like MODL. Where a municipal unit has failed for years, and in some cases decades, to upgrade or maintain sewer systems, water utilities and road systems, what was formerly considered an asset of a municipal unit may, in fact, be more properly considered now a liability. In instances such as these, unless the receiving unit receives financial support from other levels of government, amalgamation may result in the receiving municipal unit absorbing a sizeable infrastructure deficit formed by the dissolving unit over a considerable amount of time. For the dissolving municipal unit, it may simply be a way to make the neighbours pay for years of poor management and bad decisions.

I warn any tax payer who hears a politician say "amalgamate first & trust us to work out the details later". The NSUARB has made it clear that arrangements between municipal units must be inked before the process begins through MOU’s or contracts to be binding. (NSUARB = Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board)

I have completed the Dalhousie University Municipal Government Curriculum. I have a background in reviewing budgets of many organizations both locally and nationally. If you look at Ontario in the late 1990’s where they reduced their municipal units from 850 to 445 and got rid of over twenty percent of elected councillors, you will see that they saved nothing. The results show the municipal public sector grew, both in employment and cost, and expanded at a faster rate than it had in the decade before amalgamation.

I will do my very best to see that a plebiscite takes place. There are some, perhaps a majority, at the table who do not want the residents to have this choice. If our Council cannot come up with a model for amalgamation that demonstrates fairness to all parts of the municipality as well as major financial benefits for everyone, we have no mandate to make that decision on our own.