UPPER NAPPAN – Both Murray Scott and warden Keith Hunter answered questions about amalgamation between the county and the town of Springhill after Wednesdays council meeting. Scott was interviewed outside the council chambers just as the meeting was ending and Hunter was later interviewed on the phone.
Scott is heading the Springhill concerned citizen’s group and said he came to speak to council on Wednesday about holding a plebiscite to decide the future of Springhill.
“There are three partners here (Springhill, the County, the province), and for it to be an uncontested application (for amalgamation between Springhill and the County) it requires all three to be agreeable to the application, and our point in coming here today was to try to convince the municipality that the citizens of Springhill are having their rights ignored,” said Scott. “I was hoping they would recognize that and put pressure on the town of Springhill to have a plebiscite. If they are so sure it’s the right thing to do and they believe the people are supportive, a plebiscite would prove that.”
Asked about Springhill’s debt, Scott says amalgamation isn’t necessarily the magic bullet needed to clean up the town’s debt.
“We have the town of Springhill projecting numbers and figures and putting out budgets, and the numbers seem to be changing,” said Scott. “We have two accountants from outside the province who have reviewed the numbers we provided them and they have a different perspective of the future of the Town of Springhill as we see it.”
Hunter says debt is a problem for small communities throughout Nova Scotia.
“The smaller the municipality the tougher it is for them. They still have the same land and the same expenses as far as water, sewer and roads are concerned, and the population base is eroding,” he said. “People are getting older, people are dying off and people are going out West for work and that means taxes aren’t there to be collected. If you haven’t got money coming in, just like any business, if you want to move forward you’re going to be in trouble.”
The province of Nova Scotia recently released financial indicators for municipalities from throughout the province for the year 2011-2012.
Springhill was redlined for many indicators, with the most glaring being the per cent of uncollected taxes. The average score for Nova Scotia municipalities was 9.7 per cent of taxes uncollected, while Springhill received a score of 53.8 per cent. The County has a score of 9.6 per cent, while the Town of Amherst has a score of 2 per cent.
The report says, “A low percentage indicates the municipality is adequately managing tax revenue collection. A high percentage may indicate the municipality is experiencing difficulty monitoring and collecting overdue tax accounts. Because the amount of uncollected taxes can accumulate over several years, it is possible to exceed 100% uncollected taxes in situations of extreme financial distress.”
Scott says uncollected taxes are a serious problem, but not a problem that can’t be solved.
“The uncollected taxes is an administration problem that should be dealt with within town hall and that’s their job to collect those taxes,” he said. “There should be pressure put on that right way, and my understanding is the province can help the town to do that today. If they can help the town do it through a dissolution process, why can the do it through the normal routine of business?”
The Municipality of Cumberland had no red indicators in the financial indicator report.
“The comparisons have been done within the province and we’re number one as far as rural municipalities are concerned,” said Hunter.
Asked about tax collection in Springhill Hunter said:
“We’ve got somebody hired right now working on collecting those taxes for the town of Springhill. That person is in place and they’re working to find out how many of those taxes are legitimate and collectable and collect those that are, or at least try.”
ROADS AND OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE
“Will roads be fixed? Talk to the people in Canso or the other communities that have amalgamated…” said Scott. “Nobody believes for one second that someone is going to ride in here on a horse and pave all the streets of Springhill and it’s going to be free.
“There’s two things that can happen, the roads can remain as is or they can be paved and the people of Springhill can pay for it, and that will not change under amalgamation.”
Asked if he roads of Springhill would be paved by the county, Hunter said it is not a given.
“They’re doing an inventory of the roads to see what kind of shape they’re in. Before the county takes those over we’re going to have some negotiations with the province to try to get them up to acceptable levels.
TAXES, PROPERTY ASSESSMENTS
“If you look at the assessments of property of Springhill, there are low assessments on the properties in Springhill,” said Scott. “I’m not suggesting that should change but it you look at the tax rate, the tax rate doesn’t reflect the amount of money the town requires to operate but, again, as a committee we believe there are tremendous opportunities that are being ignored,”
Those opportunities focus on geothermal energy.
“The world recognizes the potential here, and our own administration in the town seems to overlook that,” said Scott.
“We have a subcommittee in our group of volunteers who are looking very hard for economic development and have come up with some great ideas. If our mayor and council would reach out to the citizens and ask for some help we truly believe that we could generate additional revenue for the town, we could encourage business and we could survive as a community and remain an incorporated town under the municipal government act.”
In January the province of Nova Scotia issued an energy lease to the town that would allow the town to operate geothermal energy as a utility.
“There are engineers who have been working on this for months now who believe that there’s tremendous opportunity here as well,” said Scott. “Bill Casey has spoken to company’s outside this area that show interest in our community with regards to geothermal energy.
“We don’t believe it’s been properly marketed of that the proper amount of energy hasn’t been put in to sell that utility.”
Hunter was not asked about the geothermal potential but during the council meeting Bill Casey asked about $1.2 million budgeted by the county for economic development for the town of Springhill.
Hunter said the money is a line item in the budget which will be used, "for geothermal energy."
With regards to assessments Hunter said:
“The assessments are relative to the market value or they’re supposed to be. If the market value goes up then the assessment will go up, but other than that, no they won’t take a spike,” said Hunter.
TOWN POLICE vs. RCMP
If the town and county amalgamate, it appears Springhill will be policed by the RCMP. The county says there will be substantial saving by having the RCMP but Scott says the people of Springhill would like to see the numbers released so they can see for themselves whether or not the savings are substantial.
“We say compare apples to apples. Is it 24 hour coverage, how many officers is it? If we lose the criminal record check, which is pretty well a quarter of a million a year, the RCMP doesn’t do that work, so that’s going to be gone, so you have to deduct that from what the Springhill cops actually get,” said Scott.
He also pointed out that the Springhill police receive $200,000 annually from the province to provide two police officers for the street crime unit. He asked if that money has been taken into account in the comparison.
“Let’s compare apples to apples. We say, ‘let’s see it.’ If it’s the right thing and the proposals are identical then let’s see them. Why hide it?" said Scott. "There’s a reason it’s not being disclosed. We would like to see that information released today.”
Scott finished by saying the current Springhill mayor and council are taking the easy way out.
“It’s very easy to sit back and say, ‘we have high taxes, people aren’t paying there taxes and people aren’t paying their bills and we can’t survive anymore,’” said Scott. “That’s the easy way out of all of this. A tough way would be to bring the community in and work together and find a way for our town to survive. That’s what we’re saying. Basically, if people think they can’t do it, they should allow others to try.”
“I can’t give you any definite numbers now but I can say there will be substantial savings in that police service yearly, worthwhile enough to make the change. We’ve got the figures but it’s not up to me to release them.”
Those financial comparisons are currently in the hands of John Leefe, the transition co-ordinator appointed by the province to facitlitate the amalgamation process, and have not been made public.
The next important date on the amalgamation calendar is June 18. That's when the Nova Scotia Untility and Review Board will hold a public hearing in Springhill.