Mayor Report, By Wendy Robinson
Town’s involvement with larger municipal organizations is ‘money well spent’
As a member of Stewiacke’s Town Council, I’m privileged to have the opportunity to attend several events each year that bring together other municipal leaders to share information, knowledge and experiences as we all strive to better our region and our province.
May 7 to 9 found me in New Glasgow at the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities’ (UNSM) Annual Spring Workshop. The UNSM website defines itself as “a not-for-profit organization mandated to represent the provincial interests of municipal governments across Nova Scotia. Total membership is 412 elected officials representing all 54 municipalities.
Municipal interests are represented through three caucuses: Regional Caucus, Rural Caucus and Towns Caucus. The Town of Stewiacke has been a member for many years and we’re generally represented at the spring workshops and the fall conferences that are hosted by larger municipalities around the province.
This year’s workshop began for me with the Towns Caucus meeting, in which we discuss matters that pertain specifically to towns. We hold separate meetings from the Rural and Regional Caucus because towns have different issues from the other two groups. For instance, the province pays for roads in the rural municipalities, but not in towns.
This meeting was a chance for us to discuss the process of dissolutions, from a town’s prospective, for towns that need to consider this option and the soon to be released Financial Indicators Report. These indicators are meant to show where towns rate on a scale devised to do a quick check on things such as the debt ratio, amount of money in savings, amount outstanding in taxes and other areas.
I’m pleased to say Stewiacke is doing well on the scale, once the numbers are explained (feel free to contact the CAO if you have any questions about our snapshot).
All the municipalities came together for the rest of the time to listen to various presenters. We began the second day with a talk from Natalie Smith, who is president of the Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia. It was really inspiring to see what an economic driver farmers’ markets can be for the various communities around the province. Food for thought, as they say.
Next we listened to presentations from officials from Municipal Services, the department responsible for managing the relationship between the municipalities and the provincial government. They talked more in depth, from the province’s perspective, on the dissolution process and the Financial Indicators Report. In this session, I learned it’s possible to seek funding for libraries from the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage in addition to the Brownfield fund (for formerly used property that can be repurposed). These funds change criteria often, so it was great to get clarification on what’s eligible and under which program, as the province doesn’t always offer that information unsolicited.
Mayor Pam Mood of Yarmouth treated us to a discussion about citizen engagement. She’s very dynamic and passionate about her town and when the announcement came the ferry would be reinstated, she challenged the residents to take the matter into their own hands to spruce up the town to make it ready for the visitors. She quoted a friend who says they needed to “slap on some lipstick and invite them to dinner”.
It made me think that perhaps that’s what we could all do in Stewiacke. We don’t have a ferry coming, but we do have visitors coming in cars and busses. I challenge everyone to take a look at their part of the town with fresh eyes to imagine what it might look like to someone who doesn’t drive by it every day. Maybe a quick tidy up of the yard, or a potted plant, a fresh coat of paint, or just a smile on your face is all that’s needed. It all adds up and we want people to leave thinking they want to come back to visit or even move here.
Two others spoke on citizen engagement in different ways. Deputy Mayor Jim Mustard, of the Municipality of Inverness, spoke about the importance of community development spurring on economic development. He says this demonstrates a community that’s functioning as a great place to live and is more likely to attract business. Businesses tend to be looking for a workforce as much, or even more than, comparing the tax rates. Having engaged citizens is key to attracting more residents. We all want to live in a place we can be proud of and that happens when we all step forward to do what we can, no matter how small the contribution seems to be.
The second speaker, Danny Graham, relayed the importance of avoiding quick fixes and the need to pull together. The group he belongs to is called Engage Nova Scotia and its vision includes the statement, “ We know we live in a special place and that we enjoy a unique quality of life. It’s up to us to protect and enhance those gifts for future generations.” (www.engagens.ca).
It’s hard not to believe in the future of the province after hearing these three speakers, as their passion is infectious. I hope I can “infect” enough Stewiackers to keep the momentum going. I know the newly formed Stewiacke and Area Community and Business Association is working towards that end and would welcome your interest. Please contact SACBA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The third day began with a talk about the new 211 system and I have to say, again, I was so glad I was able to hear the presentation. 211 is the number to call when you have an emergency that isn’t immediate. 911 was receiving too many calls that weren’t immediate life and -death type issues, such as where to find money for more oil in the winter, so the government adopted the 211 model found across the country. 211 operators act as caseworkers, in that they help people navigate government programs, walk them through filling out forms and even in finding local card parties. If they don’t know the answer to the question, they’ll seek it out and get back to the person. They do follow-up calls when necessary. They also have access to translators for those who have trouble speaking English.
Mark Furey, minister of Municipal Affairs, was the last speaker. He also talked about dissolution and the financial indicators, and funding opportunities, among other things. He’s visiting every municipality and will be coming to Stewiacke sometime before the end of June.
Although there’s a cost associated with attending these types of functions, I will be among the first to say they’re well worth the financial expenditure. It cost the Town of Stewiacke $2,700 to send the CAO, a councillor and me to the workshop, including the entrance fees and travel for the three of us. While the CAO is paid staff, he gave up an evening and had to juggle his daily workload for two days. The councillor gave up a full day of work and an evening while I spent two and a half days and two evenings at the workshop. True, as Mayor, I’m paid a stipend, I got to have a stay in a hotel and enjoyed a couple of wonderful meals, but attending conferences is work, not a vacation. I’m always aware when the Town is footing the bill and I make sure I learn everything possible, glean information from other elected officials as to how they do things, and generally try to find better ways of doing business for the Town. I know the rest of Council and the CAO feel the same way. It’s important, when possible, for more than one person to attend events as everyone gets something different from the same presentation or are able to attend different presentations that are offered simultaneously. I thank you for the opportunity and privilege of representing the Town of Stewiacke. I believe it’s money well spent for the Town.
Another councillor and I will be attending the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in Niagara, Ont. at the end of May. Again, there’s a cost to participating, but we will bring back new ideas to do things even better for Stewiacke. Please feel free to ask me about that trip and what I have learned.
Let’s take what was learned and get out and make Stewiacke an even more viable, friendly and wonderful place that visitors will hate to leave. So for now, pick your shade of lipstick and get out the cookbooks — company is coming!
Wendy Robinson has served as mayor of Stewiacke since October 2012.