AMHERST - Plans to hold public hearings on lowering the gas tax in Amherst have drawn the ire of provincial Opposition leader Stephen McNeil.
McNeil feels the NDP government has its mind made up on cutting the gas tax near the New Brunswick border and holding the only public meeting on the issue in Amherst is a blatant attempt to undermine the consultative process.
"By taking it just to Amherst they'll know the answer before they go. It's nothing more than a public relations exercise by the NDP government," McNeil said. "By holding the lone meeting in Amherst they're going where they'll get the answer they want. Who's going to be opposed to paying less for gas? Meanwhile the rest of Nova Scotia is not going to get an opportunity to weigh in."
The Utility and Review Board has scheduled hearings in Amherst on Jan. 27 to discuss the government's plan to stagger gas taxes across the province. Under the proposal, those living farther from the border would pay more for fuel than those neighbouring New Brunswick.
"What the NDP are doing is creating an artificial border within our province and that is fundamentally unfair," said McNeil. "Moving the border simply moves the problem. Slicing up our province is never the answer."
He feels the government should be holding consultations across the province, saying people from Yarmouth to Halifax to Sydney deserve an opportunity to provide feedback on what he feels is a flawed piece of public policy.
"Clearly, the NDP isn't interested in real feedback," McNeil said, adding gas regulation caused the problem. "Adding even more regulation isn't the answer. Two wrongs don't make a right."
Cumberland North MLA Brian Skabar first proposed a tax break for the Amherst area during last summer's election campaign thinks McNeil is being silly.
"The whole issue of whether people in Amherst are paying less for gas is really less an issue because people from Amherst are paying less for gas, they just have to drive six kilometres across the border to get it," said Skabar. "The New Brunswick government is making money off that. We're trying to give businesses in Nova Scotia more of a level playing field against Aulac and Sackville and giving people less reason to cross the border to shop."
While an analysis has not been done on how many people are crossing the border to fuel their vehicles, Skabar said it's happening. He also feels that if people feel strongly enough on the issue they'll attend the hearing wherever it's held.
"It been advertised in the provincial newspaper and everyone who has an interest in it is aware," Skabar said. "If Mr. McNeil thinks people are going to drive to Amherst to buy gas, why won't they drive to Amherst to attend this public hearing?"
While the plan has drawn concern from retailers in other areas of Cumberland County and the province, Skabar said the model being considered will soften the blow. For example, he said the cost of fuel between Amherst and Springhill would only be about two cents per litre.
Wayne Duffy, who operates Duffy's Esso Service Station in downtown Amherst, said smaller operators are relying on this hearing for some relief.
"I have had people come here to put a few dollars in their tank so they could get to New Brunswick," said Duffy. "Lowering the tax would make us more competitive. The way it is now is not working."