SPRINGHILL – Groups for and against amalgamation coexisted in relative harmony during a public open house Wednesday in Springhill.
“Some people have said to me it’s a great forum because they can talk one-on-one. It’s not confrontational,” said Rennie Bugley, Cumberland County CAO. “Everybody seems to be listening and there doesn’t seem to be animosity.”
That is a change from previous meetings where tensions between the pro and anti-amalgamation groups often bubbled to the surface.
Bugley was one of many elected officials and staff from both the Town of Springhill and the Municipality of Cumberland County answering questions about amalgamation at the open house.
As county CAO, it is no surprise Bugley is pro-amalgamation.
“We’re hopeful when the factual information comes out and when people see the state of the infrastructure and the cost to replace it, and see what the new organization looks like and the projected tax rates, we hope they will understand the need for dissolution,” said Bugley.
The Springhill-Cumberland County Transition Committee was one of the groups at the meeting.
They are currently conducting studies in preparation for the provincial Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board’s hearing into amalgamation, which, if amalgamation goes ahead, would be implemented April 1, 2015, making Springhill a part of Cumberland County.
Four external studies are currently under way.
One study focuses on infrastructure – sewer, water and buildings, while another study examines the state of streets and roads.
A third study is a financial analysis of the costs of dissolution and no dissolution over the next five years, while the fourth study focuses on human resources.
Those studies, along with several internal studies, will be submitted to the Nova Scotia Utility and review board at the end of August.
Those documents will then be posted to the UARB website where everybody will have access to them.
Final public hearings will occur Dec. 15 to 23.
After the public hearings, the URB has up to 60 days to decide if amalgamation should or should not go ahead, meaning an announcement will be made no later than Feb. 23.
If he URB decides amalgamation is the way to go, then the county could have less than six weeks before they bring Springhill under the umbrella of the county.
– PUBLIC OPINION
Wednesday’s open house had two sessions – one from 2 to 4 p.m., and a second from 6 to 8 p.m.
Very few people attended the two sessions, meaning the elected officials and staff ended up mingling more with each other than they did with the public.
One concerned citizen who did come out to talk to elected officials and staff was Larry Coleman.
Coleman grew up in Springhill and currently lives in Springhill but works in Alberta.
Coleman thinks amalgamation is the way to go.
“I think it’s a long time overdue and tonight’s open house only reinforces that,” said Coleman.
Coleman says he is currently buying a new house in Springhill and is concerned about Springhill’s high tax rate.
“I don’t expect them to go down right away but I’d like to see them go down in the future,” he said.
Coleman thinks amalgamation should have happened years ago.
“We might not have been in such dire straights,” he said.
Coleman then quickly listed off the names of the last five mayors of Springhill and said, “The only reason why this is happening with the current mayor is because it couldn’t last any longer. He bit the bullet and did it.”
He says the town will have more potential once they join the county.
“The town has great potential with the geothermal and the natural gas from the coal,” he said. “There’s all kinds of potential but you have to develop it, and you can’t develop it if you’re broke.”
Another concerned citizen at the meeting was Rick James. He is against amalgamation.
He says the process hasn’t been transparent enough.
He would like to know what the future holds with regards to job losses and tax rates, but says, “There’s a lot of unknowns and we’re not getting any answers.”
James is not alone in his concerns.
The Springhill Vounteer Citizen's Committee recently garnered close to 900 signatures calling for a plebiscite on amalgamation.
Although their call for a plebiscite has fallen mostly on deaf ears, the committee was recently granted intervener status and will have an opportunity to file evidence and ask for clarifications during December's public hearings.
The chair of the committee is Murray Scott, former long time MLA for Cumberland South.
The group is currently raising money to help with accounting and, possibly, legal fees.
“The Springhill Volunteer Citizens Committee had been contacted by quite a few people who want to know how to contribute to our efforts,” said Scott. “We’re telling people that they can contribute by sending donations to the Springhill Volunteer Citizens Committee, PO Box 924, Springhill.
“The money will be used for professional representation for the hearings. It could be accounting, it may be legal,” added Scott.