By Christopher Gooding
SPRINGHILL - Premier Darrell Dexter is on the offensive this week in reaction to charges his government betrayed the town of Springhill by rescinding a decision to build a new jail here.
Dexter told provincial media on Wednesday there wasn't a firm commitment to build a new jail in Springhill and despite the April 29th announcement the project was in motion it was without funding and purely political.
In a document obtained by Transcontinental Media, however, the province was making promises much earlier than the contested announcement.
In a signed agreement between the town and Steve Chiason, acquisition and disposal officer for the province, the province purchased 33.06 acres of land - dubbed the Provincial Lot -from Springhill for $1, with provisions for the new jail near the community's secondary water source as well as other promises.
"The Province shall take all responsible steps and procedures to protect the reservoir and the waters of the reservoir as a source and supply of good quality water for the benefit of the town during the construction, use, maintenance, repair, replacement and operation by the province of a Correctional Facility on the Provincial Lot," the contract dated March 16, reads.
The agreement also says the province will construct a new access road to the secondary water supply for of the town to use, paid for by the province.
No announcement when the access road will be built has ever been made.
Justice Minister Ross Landry went on the record this month, saying the new jail will not be built in Springhill or anywhere else in Cumberland County, opting instead to build one jail to replace the aging jails in Amherst and Antigonish. Landry says the jail will be centrally located to Colchester County and the Minister's Pictou riding, saving the province $1.7 million in operations and $5 million in construction costs.
The decision is not sitting well with in this area, prompting petitions, statements from the county's municipal leaders and former NDP candidate Don Tabor resigned his position as Cumberland South's association president earlier this week.
Contrary to the premier's comments, Tabor says he feels the town did have a firm agreement.
"In March the town signed the deed and land transfer documents with the province, that specifically stated the land was for the purpose of constructing a jail," Tabor says. "It wasn't a pie-in-the sky agreement. It was the real thing."
As CAO for the Town of Springhill, Tabor worked alongside Conservative MLA Murray Scott and the Rodney MacDonald Conservative government for three years, he says, to finalize the agreement. Dexter's accusations there was no money in the previous government's budget for the jail, Tabor says, are contrary to what Springhill was told after signing over the land to the province.
"Certainly our talks with then-Minister Murray Scott indicated to us the funds for the jail was in the upcoming budget," Tabor said.
In rebuttal to Dexter's assertions there was no financial commitment to the jail, the Progressive Conservatives says their government budgeted $18 million for correctional facilities, Springhill included, and can explain exactly how it was cut from the NDP budget.
When the NDP forced the election, PC public relations advisor Mike Kydd says, the Conservative budget was not introduced as record. Capital spending for highways and infrastructure renewal were presented as one lump sum.
"The budget would not show items as details on capital plans because of the number of highway jobs," Kydd explained. "And it won't be outlined as a budget item because the budget wasn't entered as record."
After taking power, the Dexter government issued a budget bulletin stating it was decreasing $20 million from its capital budget outlined for buildings.
"$18 million of that $20 million was set aside for Springhill and Antigonish facilities. The other $2 million was for tourism and heritage projects; the Ottawa House in Parrsboro and a fisheries museum in Highland Village," Kydd said. "I can tell you with 100 per cent confidence because I was in budget lock-up and when we asked where this money was coming from they told us."
The premier's logic to say no money was committed to the Springhill jail, Kydd says, could be used to explain why any given road in Nova Scotia is not being repaved.
Dan O'Connor, NDP's chief of staff, says that isn't so.
Speaking on behalf of the premier, who was en route to Copenhagen, and Landry, en route to Ottawa, O'Connor says the only money approved by cabinet was $1 million spent on preliminary work prior to the Apr. 29 announcement and that money for the jail was never a clear issue.
"The assumption - and I say assumption because we'll never know - would have been it would have to go back for further approval," O'Connor said. "When we were digging through that, we found in the budget highlights it was described as $18 million over three years. It was an unusual budget to present on the eve of an election. They weren't going to spend $18 million in one year."
As for the land agreement with the town, O'Connor says there's no doubt the province bought the land for building a jail but the operational and building costs of two jails is just too prohibitive.
Cumberland South's MLA Murray Scott took direct aim at the premier, saying Dexter's has gone back on his campaign promise to keep Conservative promises and the land agreement proves it.
"If anyone in Nova Scotia believes there was not a promise to build the jail in Springhill then the premier is the only one," Scott says. "There's solid proof. I know what he said on the campaign trail and I believe a man is only as good as his word and he is breaking his word."
Since cancelling construction of the jail in Springhill, Minister Landry has ordered the province to keep the land it acquired.
By Christopher Gooding