Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce briefly addressed attendees of a consultation session in Carbonear about adopting forms of regional government in Newfoundland and Labrador.
©Andrew Robinson/The Compass
CARBONEAR, NL — Held in a region where many smaller town share not-so-distant boundaries, it perhaps should not have come as a surprise so many turned up in Carbonear last Thursday for a consultation session on regional government.
The topic has come up regularly over the last couple of years in meetings of the Conception Bay North Joint Council, with a plebiscite vote on the issue having remained a possibility for this month's general election up until earlier this year.
Indeed, there were plenty of municipal leaders present at the Royal Canadian Legion for the consultation session, along with many candidates in the upcoming election. Divided into groups, they tackled a number of questions relevant to the topic of shared services and forms of government that could manage the affairs of multiple communities.
Municipal Affairs Minister Eddie Joyce attended the event. He said there were more people registered in Carbonear than any of the other 25 scheduled consultations.
As he's said in the past, Joyce promised not to force amalgamation on any towns, adding government simply wants feedback that can aid the work of an advisory committee developing pilot projects for regional governance. Those projects are expected to start in 2019.
"Tell us what we can do," he said. "We know the demographics of the province are shifting. Everybody in this room knows that. We all know that. We know there have got to be changes."
Emily Thompson, manager of community co-operation with the province, gave a presentation that outlined some of the key issues underlining the need for more collaboration among towns.
Towns with declining, aging populations struggle to fill council vacancies and may not have access to the revenue necessary to provide services residents expect. More than half of all municipalities in the province as of 2016 have a population below 500. Among towns in close proximity, there may be an unnecessary duplication of services.
Local service districts (LSDs) generally provide fewer services and in many cases are located near towns with an active council. These LSDs find themselves relying on neighbouring communities or the provincial government to address service shortcomings.
On the issue of the advantages and disadvantages of regional government, mention was made of the perceived threat some people feel of losing community identity through amalgamation. Some attendees of the session suggested this theory has already been disproven through the experiences of people living in places like Riverhead, Harbour Grace or any of the communities now a part of Bay Roberts like Coley's Point and Shearstown.
In a regionalized setting, it was said there might be opportunities to provide services not currently addressed, such as transportation for seniors. The cost of regionalization for taxpayers also came up. While the cost of some fees may come down through regionalization, smaller communities joining larger ones could end up facing increased property taxes through the introduction of new services. One attendee said there are people likely willing to put up with fewer services if it means their taxes remain low.
Discussing the potential impact of communities having a choice to opt out of the system, much was made of the current arrangement for LSDs and the perception residents of those communities do not pay their fair share for services.
On the potential criteria for regional government, it was said population size could prove to be less relevant than other factors. The concern of larger towns dominating discussions and representation at the regional level was also brought up.
The consultation session considered the implications of regional governments being mandated to look after certain services versus having the flexibility to choose. It was generally agreed the latter option would be preferable, though some said there could be services that merit being mandated, like waste management and wastewater. On the issue of wastewater, it was noted towns are generally not in a position to be able to afford the work necessary to comply with new federal regulations for treatment.