PARRSBORO – Lois Smith was elected for the second time as mayor of Parrsboro this past fall, after no opposing candidates stepped up to join her on the Oct. 20 ballot. The retired teacher and former town councillor, who was first elected mayor in 2009 after the death of former mayor Doug Robinson, was awarded by the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities this year for her 15 years in municipal politics.
Carrying on with a yearly tradition, the mayor recently sat down with Citizen-Record co-editor Andrew Wagstaff for a year-end interview to discuss matters affecting the town during the past 12 months.
Citizen-Record: Mayor Smith, thank you for taking the time to do this again.
Lois Smith: My pleasure.
CR: Early in the year, the census figures came out, revealing a drop in population in Parrsboro of 6.9 per cent from 2006 to 2011. At the time we talked about a lack of industry being an obvious reason for the drop. Now that you’ve had more time to think about it, what can the town do to face this challenge?
LS: Unfortunately, it still exists. We’re going to spend more of our time promoting economic development for the municipality. With two new councillors on board, they are in agreement that this should be one of our main focuses. In saying that, speaking with other key players in the area such as Ship’s Company Theatre and the Parrsboro and District Board of Trade, working together – even if it means forming another committee with council members on it – by putting our resources together and our heads together, we have to try. We won’t know unless we do get moving on it, and see if we can promote our area, promote our heritage, promote the arts, and perhaps Parrsboro could be identified as a cultural centre. We have a great start on that already with the (band) hall and Ship’s Company Theatre. We really have to work on the improvement of Main Street, and encourage folks with empty buildings and dilapidated buildings, that they need to be at least looked after to make the downtown presentable. We have set aside $50,000 in this year’s budget to go towards Main Street improvements. We’re really impressed with what Amherst did, and we have applied to ACOA for funding. We’re looking at such things as old-fashioned lamp poles and sidewalk improvements. Council will certainly be looking at holding the taxes, and lowering them if possible, once the expenses of the town have been determined. We were able to lower the tax rates this year, two cents on the commercial and four cents on the residential. We are determined as a council to not increase taxes, if at all possible.
CR: This year we had the announcement from the provincial government that repairs were to be made to the bridge at the aboiteau. Where does that stand now?
LS: The provincial department of transportation has been here several times to examine what needs to be done, and they have told us that it will be repaired within the year. We are on the list. Preliminary work is being carried out. We certainly will be in touch in the New Year to see what’s going on.
CR: This year Parrsboro signed the agreement with the town of Springhill and the county of Cumberland to create the Cumberland Energy Authority. I know it’s still in the early stages, but what has that meant for the town and where do you see it going?
LS: It’s important because the three municipalities involved each have their priorities – Springhill with its geothermal, the county with its wind power, and Parrsboro with tidal. We’ve left the door open, by the way, to the other municipalities, so they can always join us. I think it’s important because it’s the first one in the province, so Parrsboro’s name is out there with our other two players. It shows the provincial and federal governments that we’re sincere in having our communities become green communities.
CR: On July 1 the Ottawa House museum hosted its annual Canada Day event, and announced the $1 million restoration project, with a gala event to celebrate the reopening in 2015. What role do you see the town playing in that?
LS: We would play a very active role, be it support in volunteering ourselves, financially perhaps. They have also asked the youth town council to be very active with this project. It’s very important for the municipality, there’s no question. It will bring visitors, and the tourist industry is very important. I am supportive of it.
CR: The youth centre opened this summer, and you’ve been supportive of that, but there were concerns raised by members of the public at a council meeting in the fall that seem to have led some to interpret that council was not supportive of the youth centre. Here is your chance to clarify that.
LS: We have been as a council supportive of Tom and Sharon Brown and all of the volunteers involved with it. Council has been supportive of the youth centre, and understands that it has been successful. I understand they have a lot of volunteers to chaperone. It does provide a warm, safe environment for kids to meet their friends, and they’re off the street. Of course, there will always be kids hanging around the old post office, or whatever. But we take our hats off to the folks who got it up and running.
CR: The auditors were back this year and said things were in pretty good shape as far as finances go. There was a surplus of $83,212. What are the plans for that surplus?
LS: By law, the surplus had to go into an operating reserve. It will probably be used to upgrade the town’s computer software system. The man who set it up, and knew the whole system, passed away. His son has been going to his dad’s house and keeping us “plugged in,” but we have to upgrade the town’s computer software system. Ray (Hickey, CAO) is looking into various systems, and we’re coming close to making a decision, but these things can be up to $30-40,000. Then there will have to be training for the staff. It’s the system that controls all the finances, from taxes to assessments, to water bills, and everything. It’s a major expense.
We had capital expenditures this year of $245,000. We were very fortunate that John Henwood was able to find a slightly used snowplow truck. We needed one and this came in at a little less than $100,000. People don’t realize that, when you do have surpluses, you’re buying things too. We have reserves of $932,148, however, part of that ($103,000) comes from the (federal) gas tax, which is what we used several years ago to pave 17 streets. What also builds up that reserve is interest on our investments, sale of equipment that’s obsolete…
CR: I guess the whole argument on that is people are struggling while the town’s sitting on a million in reserves. What do you say to that?
LS: It takes a lot of capital to run a town. We hope in 2013-14 to repave some more streets. We have the gas tax money.
CR: We had the election in the fall. You didn’t have to campaign…
LS: And I was really surprised that I went in by acclamation. Some say it’s great, that you don’t have to campaign, but you’re always campaigning.
CR: We did get two new councillors added to the team. How do you feel about the balance and the chemistry with the group now?
LS: We’ve just had the one meeting, and I don’t expect there will be any challenges. There always is, with five people, but Ronnie (Shaw) was on council before so he has an idea of how the town operates and what’s expected of a councillor. Rob (Fancy) is a very nice young man, and he keeps telling me he will learn. And he will. Just give him a year and he will be up to speed. Their committees are assigned, and we will all be busy. I’m looking forward to working with the two new councillors as well as continuing my work with the councillors I worked with before.
CR: The Parrsboro and District Board of Trade expressed interest this year in having the town take over responsibility for the Partridge Island trail. Has that gone anywhere?
LS: The recreation committee is reviewing it. Tissy (Bolivar, recreation director) is interested in it, as are some of the councillors. We’re still reviewing what we want to do with that.
CR: Council also received a letter from the Parrsboro Lions Club seeking more assistance with the operation of the arena. What is the town considering for its role there?
LS: It’s on our agenda for January. We will be reviewing this. It’s such an important thing for the town. We do all the snowplowing there. We’re going to look at it, but like any municipality, we’d like to have (Lions treasurer) Brian Brewer come in and give us a breakdown and have a discussion. We will certainly look at something. It’s a valuable asset to the town of Parrsboro and the Lions do a lot of great work.
CR: We ended the year on a bit of a sad note with the closing of Castle and Bare Bones Bistro, and we also lost Lisa’s Emporium earlier in the year. I’ve heard it expressed that businesses have struggled with the tax burden…
LS: It is very sad in many respects. Those folks that have had to close are obviously not employed and their workers will be looking for employment, so it leaves them on the unemployment list, and obviously the products they were selling and providing in their shops are no longer available in Parrsboro. And we have empty buildings. Taxes would be a high item on their list of responsibilities as a business owner. I believe a cent (on the tax rate) represents almost $6,000 to the town. I know people are saying we have money in the bank. Yes, but if we have one of those machines break down, we don’t have to borrow and we don’t have the interest. To be honest, I understand the commercial taxes would be one of their major expenses. The town does realize this. Our taxes have come down. We’ve been able to lower them a cent here and there, and we will continue to do so whenever possible. We always look at those tax rates, and we spend hours to make sure the town’s responsibilities and services are covered.
CR: Is Parrsboro a business-friendly environment? Is the tax burden too great that businesses can’t succeed?
LS: I understand the struggles – the taxes, the insurance, the wages… it’s part of doing business. When a person goes into business, those would be things you’d want to know beforehand. I think it has to be up to the business owner as part of their decision-making on whether they’re going to go into business.
CR: We’ve spoken about the idea of a new town hall in our past year-end interviews, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of public discussion about it until the election campaign.
LS: It has been discussed since I’ve been on council for 15 years. The reason the discussions would take place is because everything is outdated here. When funding would become available, and the town could afford to replace this building or renovate, I think something…. The fuel bill is around $15,000 a year, and the oil furnace is over 35 years old. Everything in the building needs to be replaced at some point. We have no plans. There is nothing budgeted. Councils and mayors of the day have talked about practical things, like we own the library on Queen Street, and it’s fairly expensive. A combination of town hall and library would probably save us $40,000 a year that we spend on the library, and that property could be sold. We even talked about one of our biggest expense items is the RCMP – we could even provide office space for them here. We’re paying rent for that building of over $300,000. Years from now I would hope it would be a practical consideration of mayor and council to decide what was more practical. Why build a separate VIC when it can be housed in one building? The taxpayers of Parrsboro would be involved from the very start of any new building and/or renovations that were planned in the future. It would require public participation.
CR: That concludes our interview. Thanks again for your time.
LS: My pleasure, and Happy New Year to you and your readers.