Dalhousie professor says council needs to engage its citizens
Springhill's decision to apply for dissolution as a town comes as no surprise to municipal observers.
© Christopher Gooding- Cumberlandnewsnow.com
Springhill Mayor Max Snow answers a question during a press conference on Wednesday.
AMHERST – While a surprise to Springhill residents, the president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities said his organization wasn’t surprised by council’s decision to start the dissolution process.
“No, not surprised at all. We suspected it. There are a few towns in Nova Scotia that are going through some struggles,” David Corkum, the mayor of Kentville, said. “It’s not the news we want to deal with but it is what it is and there comes a time when you can’t pay your bills that you have to put the breaks on and go in another direction.”
Corkum said he’s been saying for years that many Nova Scotia towns are barely hanging on and he has played a key role in the UNSM’s municipal task force that has made several recommendations to the province.
The UNSM also expects to release a municipal indicators report by April that will show just how bad the situation is across the province.
“These indicators will give towns and indicator of where they’re at and where they’re going. It will help some municipalities realize how bad their circumstances are,” he said. “Some of the smaller towns, for a variety or reasons, are in a bad situation.”
While amalgamation may be the answer for Springhill, Corkum said there are other alternatives like increased sharing.
Jack Novak, a professor of local government at Dalhousie University, said many towns are facing a perfect storm in that they’ve lost a major industry, have an aging population, but are expected to maintain a certain level of services while being deluged with increased downloading from higher levels of government through more regulations.
“I’m not surprised at is that they’re considering dissolution. What I’m surprised at is that it was a surprise for the residents of the town,” Novak said. “One of the chief goals of any government body is to engage its citizens. I’m not suggestion dissolution is or isn’t the answer, but one of the things that makes the journey better is when you have an informed, supportive citizenry.”
He suggests the town’s leadership engage its residents as much as possible because it may be surprised at what could come out of the process.
“It may come down to residents saying they don’t mind paying an extra $500 a year in taxes, but the conversation needs to happen,” he said. “If the decision is that it would be better to be part of the county then so be it. There has to be a flow of information back and forth.”
Warden Keith Hunter, who is also the vice president of the UNSM, said eight to 10 other towns are in financial difficulty.
The warden said Springhill would become like any other community in the municipality in that it would have elected representatives on municipal council and its water, sewer and other services would be covered by area rates.
Amherst Mayor Robert Small said his town is sympathetic to the plight of Springhill as it works through issues that are very common to many towns in Nova Scotia.
“All towns in Nova Scotia are feeling the squeeze as the combination of rising costs, declining demographics and the challenge of providing more services and continuing to provide existing services begins to take hold in our province. Some towns are feeling the pressure earlier and in a much more severe fashion than others,” Small said.
Small said Amherst has been providing assistance to Springhill over the past few months by making its CAO Greg Herrett available to consult with Springhill council and senior staff on an as needed basis.
“We’ll continue to support them however we can through the next few months as they continue to provide services to their citizens through the transition,” Small said.
Oxford’s Trish Stewart said her town has never consider following Springhill’s lead.
“It hasn’t been anything we’ve ever considered. We’re doing fine financially and everything is pretty secure in our town,” Stewart said. “Could it be a possibility in the future? Who knows? I couldn’t answer that.”
Stewart said Springhill’s decision didn’t surprise her. She said towns are finding it more difficult to make ends meet with increased service demands and declining revenues.