Springhill report to UARB offers brief look at what went wrong

Council says it had no idea how bad things were

Christopher Gooding cgooding@citizenrecord.ca
Published on September 4, 2014
Springhill report

SPRINGHILL – Springhill is a town financially and administratively in shambles, so reads its report to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board.

After directing the town to file evidence following its application to the board to dissolve the local government, the town delivered its reports last week addressing what it believes are merits for the dissolution, without pulling any punches it felt dissolution was an effective way to shed itself of the Springhill Police Service without penalty to its tax base, unburden itself from mounting costs as taxes had long gone uncollected, and turnaround the community.

In the opening pages of the report, the town solicitor Robert Grant outlined the financial situation of the Springhill Police Service, saying the cost of policing climbed 21 per cent over the run of five years before the 2012 call for a policing review by Mayor Snow and council. It was then council learned it could save $325,000 annually if it contracted the RCMP for similar service – eight officers for 18-hours daily coverage and six on call hours –  but would still suffer about $2 million in pension liability to the Springhill Police if it contracted RCMP.

Not readily mentioned up until now, the report alleges the criminal record checks the Springhill Police Service presently conducts and provides revenue to the town’s general government coffers was going to be phased out in 2015, meaning the Springhill Police Service couldn’t provide offsetting revenue in the future.  

Dissolving the community by April 1, 2015, offers a technical loophole where the town wouldn’t have to pay the $2 million liability. Policing, however, is just one of the reasons council wants to dissolve.

“It would be unfair to identify the policing costs as the root cause of the decision to seek dissolution as there are other significant challenges…” the report states.


Everything wasn't okay

The report described the previous government’s spending, sating in January of 2012 it borrowed $900,00) for a sidewalk plow, police car, street paving, salt truck and town hall repairs, and a further $770,000 for an aerial ladder truck inevitably too big for the fire hall.

The borrowing moved the town’s debt ratio to 14.8 per cent, just under the 15 per cent threshold and warranted a warning from Service Nova Scotia.

It was at that time, the report says, the province warned the town it had 40 per cent of it taxes uncollected, too.

Ignoring two of the present councilors were part of the previous government, the report says the present council had no clue about the town’s financial situation.

“The current Town Council unfortunately was not aware when it came to office of the Town’s serious accounts receivable problem.”

Instead, the report alludes, the town auditors painted a rosy picture of the town’s finances.

“This was never mentioned to Council by its Auditors, but rather it was assured that everything was good.”

It was the auditor’s reassurance everything was good, the report says, that Mayor Snow made comments to the media in January the town was in good shape – just two months before making the motion to dissolve the town.


Lack of resources

With not enough money coming in, and no one the wiser the town was in bad shape, things turned for the worse at town hall when it started losing human resources.  

In the fall of 2013, Chief Administrative Officer Don Tabor went on leave, leaving the town’s Director of Finances to fill the void until Amherst CAO Greg Herret was hired under a part-time contract to help the town.

The accounts receivable clerk, in the meantime, was “overburdened with other duties,” including being the town webmaster, taking notes during council meetings and being the CAO ‘s secretary.

“With no Chief Administrative Officer in place, a vacant Director of Leisure Services position due to a resignation, a Police Chief off on sick leave for five years, and another senior employee off for several months on sick leave, the Town’s operations were struggling to meet expected safety and financial commitments in the short term.”

Council looked at a number of options, including shared services and raising taxes, to deal with the issues, but the decision kept coming back to dissolution as the most viable option for the community.


Life in the county

The report to the NSUARB offers a small glimpse f what life under the Municipality of Cumberland County will be like.

The report proposes the current level of service from the Springhill Fire Department would remain the same, albeit dispatching currently provided by the Springhill Police Service would transfer to Valley Communications and honourariums for the volunteers, which the county does not offer volunteer fire fighters, would have to become part of Springhill’s area rate if the practice here were to continue.

Policing will be provided by the RCMP using the former police department for its base of operations and providing 40-hour a week front counter service. Crossing guards and Animal Control;, however, will be dealt with by other departments.

Who will handle garbage removal was unclear, but the $147 Springhill presently charges citizens would be dissolved into the general tax rate. Sewage taxes would stay the same at $226. As for roads, the report outlines the need for $5.4 million in preservation and repairs, $3 million of which should be done immediately.

The report even provides a street-by-street report card on road conditions, but little, if anything at all in the report, says what will be done about the towns water and sewage lines beneath those roads.

A social impact study was also conducted to determine citizen concerns and the concerns of organizations before becoming part of the county.

The slideshow presentation from the public meeting was included in the report, but not the findings.

The board will conduct its hearing into the town’s application to dissolve in December.