A BOLD APPROACH FOR LOCAL GOVERNANCE REFORM IN NEW BRUNSWICK
Daryl Branscombe Commentary
Edmund Burke, an Irish political philosopher and statesman who lived in the 1700’s, said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of Evil is that a few good men do nothing”. It certainly holds true today. While I do not believe that the ‘troubles’ facing our Province today were caused by evil, there are a myriad of public policy issues that have been intentionally left unaddressed over the years. One of those is local governance.
Back in 2007, the New Brunswick Self-Sufficiency Task Force, appointed by Premier Shawn Graham, concluded that the number and size of local government bodies constituted the single most important obstacle on the road to the Province’s economic development and self-sufficiency. Furthermore, in the opinion of the Task Force, as structured at that time, local governance institutions did not have the capacity to provide desirable, functional and affordable services to residents of local communities at equitable costs to taxpayers. It called for immediate action.
In response, the provincial government instituted the Commission on the Future of Local Governance in September of the same year. Headed by Jean-Guy Finn, a former senior provincial deputy-minister and Clerk of the Executive Council, the Commission was mandated to conduct a comprehensive review of the work done to date on the subject and to make recommendations regarding the structure, organization and financing of local governments. In the scope of review, the following elements were to be included:
Structure and organization of local government in the Province
Regional cooperation among local governance entities (including economic development and land use planning)
Local government funding arrangements
Legislative framework associated with the Action Plan
The Commission’s Report – commonly referred to as the Finn Report – entitled ‘Building Stronger Local Governments and Regions’ was tabled in November 2008. (Please refer to Resources on our Website coalitionnb.com to view the report).
Seen as the most comprehensive study of local governments since the Byrne Commission of the 1960s, the Finn Report addresses key structural and financial issues associated with the future development of our Province. It provides essential components of a blueprint toward the stated goal of ‘self-sufficiency by 2026’. Chapter 14 contains detailed recommendations respecting the implementation of the proposed Action Plan.
Yet, a decade and three governments later, no significant action has been taken. The Report continues to collect dust together with several other. New Brunswick still counts well over 350 local governance entities (municipalities and LSDs plus a litany of single purpose agencies) each acting largely in isolation of one another. It is now high time to retrieve this Report and revisit its recommendations.
Over 85% of New Brunswick’s population live within a 50 km radius of the 8 cities (Saint John, Fredericton, Edmundston, Campbellton, Bathurst, Miramichi, Moncton and Dieppe). We therefore, do not need hundreds of local governments. We need much fewer (no more than 50), but stronger local governance entities that will share services, infrastructures and costs within a regional framework. Problems associated with the current local governance structure are popping up all over New Brunswick and are increasingly unmanageable:
1. In the Greater Saint John area where adjacent municipal councils compete for limited taxpayers’ dollars. Where each municipality largely plan and deliver services and infrastructures in isolation and where the City of Saint John itself is facing a financial crisis (with the Province, itself with no money, offering a bail out). How many other local governments will soon be seeking similar financial assistance?
2. In the provincial Capital region where Fredericton and Hanwell are fighting over the location of a new school while New Maryland has a school which is nearly half empty. How does this help the Department of Education which sees its budget expands year after year at the same time that the student population is declining?
3. In the Restigouche region where an overbuilt (with the help of the provincial and federal governments) sports complex in Campbellton years ago will stay closed this summer because the City can’t handle the operating costs and because the surrounding user communities refuse to share in the same.
4. In dozens of small communities where costly community resources such as fire trucks and other equipment are largely underutilized and where the pool of trained volunteer firefighters is shrinking due to a rapidly aging population.
5. On the outskirts of most municipalities where a more favorable property tax regime has led to urban sprawl and linear developments, thus increasing significantly the cost of providing basic services such as roads, water and sewer.
There is no reason why such situations and poor use of resources should continue. We know that these problems can be fixed. There are concrete long-term solutions such as those contained in the Finn Report.
Other major areas of public policy, from transportation to health to education, are also in need of long- term planning and practical solutions. However, local governance is a good place to start. We need a commitment from our political leaders to “pull the trigger” and implement such plans. We can and will successfully reach our stated goal of self-sufficiency through deliberate, planned actions …..and through leadership.
The Coalition of Concerned Citizens Inc. is non-partisan and has a few good people who have the courage to speak to the ills facing our beloved Province. Leadership, Leadership, Leadership!
Daryl K. Branscombe is President of the New Brunswick Coalition of Concerned Citizens (www.coalitionnb.ca) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org