Amalgamation not a desirable option

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Mayor Report, By Wendy Robinson

Mayor makes case for maintaining town’s current status

Location. Location. Location.

In real estate, this is the main word that influences the value placed on a piece of land. Things such as being near water (ocean or freshwater) makes a positive difference, whereas being in a remote area may have a negative impact.

The original inhabitants of the Town of Stewiacke chose to move the settlement from Fort Ellis to the current location because the railroad that ran through the Stewiacke Valley was so important to the way of life in the early 1900s.

Going back even further, the Mi’kmaw chose a place in the Shubenacadie River that was good for crossing (Fort Ellis).

In 2014 it’s just as important to the residents of Stewiacke that we’re located where we are.

You may have heard recently about the Ivany Report, pulled from the Interim Report from The Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy. In it, Ray Ivany states the corridor from Halifax to New Brunswick will be the most likely region of the province to continue to see growth in the years to come.

Luckily, Stewiacke sits in this corridor at 50 minutes from Halifax, 20 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from the 104 intersection. Once again, our location has impacted and will continue to impact our ability to remain a sustainable and even prosperous town.

Not only is location important to the life of a small, rural town, so too is fiscal management. Many decisions have been made by previous councils through the years that have set the Town of Stewiacke up to be in the great financial shape we currently enjoy. Our 2014-2015 general operating budget will balance at $2,256,510, at tax rates of $1.695/$100 for residential and $3.41/$100 for commercial.

Council has been able to hold this rate for a few years now; the last increase occurred in the 2009/10 budget year.

Although the Town has $835,000 in long-term debt, we still manage to have $300,000 in reserve accounts. The values of the properties in Stewiacke have seen steady increases over the years and this year the values increased by $7 million, indicating Stewiacke continues to grow and provides positive projections for the future.

I’m writing about this subject because the Town of Springhill has captured the news recently and re-sparked the discussion of Stewiacke giving up its town status to amalgamate with Colchester County. Canso amalgamated with Guysbrough County recently and currently there are several other towns considering their options. Previous councillors have mentioned to me that over the years Stewiacke has explored the idea and found that with amalgamation the taxpayers would, in fact, most likely see an increase in tax rates rather than the much-sought-after reduction in taxes.

In my first term on council I attended a session in Mulgrave about it joining Guysbrough County and the report revealed the tax rate would go up as services went down.

Currently, Stewiacke enjoys a great working relationship with Colchester County in shared services such as garbage collection, fire and police protection, and the hospital, while remaining a separate entity. We’re always seeking new ways to tap into the County’s services to aid our staff, such as the planner who sits on the Civic Building Committee. We also currently utilize some of the County’s recreation services, equipment and programs. It’s working well the way it is without giving anything up.

It appears the main issue in the Springhill case is the fact it had its own police force, to which it reportedly paid approximately 40 per cent of its budget. This contributed to the town’s inability to meet payroll without raising taxes by $.50 to the residential rate of $2.25/$100 and $5.53/$100 for commercial. That’s unsustainable.

In contrast, Stewiacke used to have its own force, but has paid for RCMP services for many years with a current fee of $146,246/year or 6.5 per cent of the operating budget. Our administration costs are 16 per cent and council costs are 3.65 per cent of the budget. Wages and benefits make up 26 per cent of the budget. This is sustainable.

So my question is: what is there to be achieved in un-incorporating? There are many things to consider when making that choice in our current reality. Residents of Stewiacke will remain responsible for debt incurred up to that date, meaning we would still have to pay off the water tower, previous roadwork, etc. We would continue to have an area rate for the maintenance of our current streets, garbage collection, water and wastewater, library, fire, social housing, education, RCMP and the hospital.

We would lose some of the job positions, leading to loss of employment opportunities for local residents.  Keep in mind, by the way, that our employees do the job of two to three employees in other jurisdictions, so if amalgamation took place, we may not see a reduction in salaries as one is cheaper than three and those three would likely be paid higher than the one we employ.

Speaking of employees, ours are readily accessible, whereas in larger municipalities you have to make appointments to meet with employees. The CAOs are usually inaccessible. Right now you can meet with our CAO almost all the time. Developers enjoy a very quick turnaround time for their necessary documents, unlike in neighbouring counties. So if we would like to keep the level of service we currently enjoy under amalgamation, we would have to pay more.

In terms of the finances, it costs $79,000, or 3.65 per cent of our budget, to maintain a separate council. However, bear in mind residents have the ability to influence decisions made by council as they have direct access to each and every councillor and the mayor. In the amalgamation scenario, Stewiacke would have one voice on a much larger council (currently 11 councillors), which would make Stewiacke a lower priority in the grand scheme. Considering all this, should we amalgamate?

There are always things to be reviewed and revised when necessary. Every few years the Utilities and Review Board asks each municipality to do a boundary review. This includes a review of the actual boundary lines as well as the boundaries for electoral districts. We elect council members at large, meaning they represent the whole Town, not a specific area. In addition, we look at the number of committees each member of council sits on, the responsibilities each member of council has, and the overall number of councillors required to meet the demands of council. The public is notified and asked to attend a meeting to express their opinions on this matter. The Utilities and Review Board will determine the size of council based on this information. We will have this process completed by the end of 2014.

Council is very much aware of the realities of the economic situation the province is experiencing, and will likely face in the future. We’re also very much aware of the impact our decisions make on the residents and businesses of Stewiacke. We take our mandate seriously and are working towards helping create a wonderful, financially viable place to live, work and play.

We look to other municipalities to see what we can improve, what we’re doing well — which is, by comparison, more than you might think — and what the future may hold. We give up free time to attend conferences and meetings to be able to speak with other municipal leaders about their best practices in order to find new ways to do things here.

Stewiacke Council must, and will, continue to practice prudent fiscal management while capitalizing on the great location our fore parents carefully chose. We can thank these visionary people, as our location will remain one of our best assets!  

Wendy Robinson has served as mayor of Stewiacke since October 2012.

Organizations: The Nova Scotia Commission on Building, RCMP, Civic Building Committee Utilities and Review Board Stewiacke Council

Geographic location: Stewiacke Valley, Halifax, Fort Ellis Shubenacadie River Springhill New Brunswick Colchester County Guysbrough Mulgrave

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