While at first glance the municipal financial condition index paints a gloomy picture for a number of Nova Scotia municipalities, it’s not time for any of them to panic or make any rash decisions they could later regret.
As Municipal Affairs Minister Mark Furey said in releasing the report card along with UNSM president David Corkum, the index is to be used as a guidepost or an indicator of how a municipality is doing in various categories and hopefully start a discussion that could either lead to improvements or start a dialog that could eventually lead to the sharing of more services or full amalgamation.
What it does do is present to the public a snapshot of where their individual municipal unit stands in terms of its debt, its reserves and its overall financial conditions. For some, change could be as easy of adjusting the way they do business, while for others it could mean having a frank and open discussion with its residents about whether continuing as a municipality is the right path.
What it does show is that Nova Scotia’s 54 municipal units are not in great shape financially. Some are, including Amherst and the Municipality of Cumberland, but a lot are in poor financial shape – almost bordering on insolvency.
When Springhill announced several weeks ago that it would be applying to the utility and review board to dissolve the town and join the Municipality of Cumberland there was genuine shock in the former mining town because no one knew the town’s finances were in such poor condition.
Since then, both Bridgetown and Hantsport, have started their dissolution journey, but they have kept their citizens informed along the road. Springhill missed its chance to have an open dialog with its residents and it’s paying the price now of an incensed population.
If anything, future indexes will provide information on trends and end the secrecy that sometimes goes along with municipal finances. In some cases, municipal councilors may not want the electorate to know how bad things are in case they kick them out of office next election, or they might consider it embarrassing even though it could have been out of their control.
By providing the information on a regular basis, people can judge for themselves how their municipal leadership is doing at managing the budget and they can feel engaged in the process.
At the end of the day, some municipal units may make the courageous decision and pull the plug on an unsustainable model. At least with the index, they will have the right information to base those decisions on and an informed electorate.