Is council placing town in precarious financial position?

Letter from town council candidate Vince Byrne

Published on July 21, 2016
Vince Byrne

To the Editor,

I am extremely concerned with the tone of three articles recently published in the Amherst News related to the Town of Amherst and wish to offer my opinion on these articles.  

For clarity, let it be known that I will be seeking a position on town council in October and I am involved in the Chase the Ace fundraising efforts at Holy Family.

Operating a town is similar to operating a business with the mayor and councillors being the board of directors with and the CAO and staff being the employees.

The shareholders are the taxpayers. As with all businesses, good governance, the ability to make the difficult decisions and excellent communications skills are critical for the success of the business. Running a business is not a popularity contest, some decisions, while difficult in the short term are made for the long-term survival of the business.

It is with this in mind that I provide the following comments.

The first article that requires comment was published highlighted as: Amherst council tops in Nova Scotia for Conference travel.

Having read the article, it appears was evident that council has no concise travel policy in place to ensure the taxpayers are receiving good value for the dollars expended.

Such an opened ended policy as described in the article is an example of a poor governance by council and needs to be addressed. 

As for the mayor’s comments, “In Amherst, the councillors decide if they see any benefit in going and they decide if they are going to participate”. Whoparticipate.”; as all costs are being covered by the town, more council and staff are attending than is necessary.

Again, a poor governance practise that has to be addressed. If the town is covering the costs of any council member or staff  attending a conference/meeting on behalf of the town, one would expect some accountability to the taxpayers.  

A good corporate practice is to have the attendee provide a report to council and staff and, which should also be available to the public, outlining what was covered at the conference; how it applies to Amherst; and how the town can benefit from the implementations any an best practises going forward.

I see no evident of any tangible benefit accruing to Amherst after having the council and staff attend both conferences.

If these conferences are billed as a chance for municipal decisionmakers to “learn, connect and be inspired,” then, if what I have seen occurring within the town within the last number of years is any indication as to what council has taken away from these conferences, it would have been far better to have council and staff stay at home.

In my opinion, only two representatives should attend any conference and a best practise should be implemented that the attendees provide the remaining councillors and staff with an in depth report on what the conference covered and how it can be best applied to Amherst.

Such a report should be posted to the town’s website for the taxpayers to view. Good time management and preparation will allow the attendees to carefully select those sessions that will provide the most benefit to Amherst.

The  As the current policy as  that is outlined does not promote accountability and nor is it an example of good governance. The town and its taxpayers are not receiving good value for its money. This has to change.

The next article that requires some comment was published as:

Amherst considering its own Chase the Ace Draw

Having read the article, I cannot believe that council would even consider this proposal or that council would instruct staff to investigate..

This, in my opinion, is a waste of staff’s time and town resources.

If, as the article states, the town is seeking an additional rerequiring additional revenues stream to fund recreation and infrastructure; , finance its rising assessment appeals and need ways to come up with new revenue stream, then the Chase the Ace would be in effect a special tax.

Furthermore, the raising of funds for general tax purposes by way of lotteries falls under provincial jurisdiction as governed by the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. 

So, in commentary to address the items noted in the article; I provide the following perhaps scenarios that the council and staff shouldcould investigate and consider:

Perhaps the funds to go to conferences could be applied to the recreation programs

Perhaps the town councillors will vote to reverse their pay raise they so conveniently voted themselves subsequent to the last election. I, for one, will be working diligently to have the matter addressed and the raises reversed to previous levels.

The taxpayers will be kept informed of how this proposal is progressing..

Perhaps we should look at staffing levels and ask the following questions: Do we need a full-time horticulturist or could we contract it out on a seasonal basis? Do we need a football field when Statistics Canada show we only have 1,020 people between the age of 10-19 years?      Do we need 30 plus police officers when statistically we should have only 18 (1.92 officers per 1,000 people). The population is 9,717 as per Stats Canada. Working with the number 30, we are overstaffed by 12 officers at $76,000 per officer. A potential savings of $912,000

Perhaps the town should seriously review its assessment base if they are losing the assessments appeals. What the town sees now as a trickle of assessment appeals will be come a flood if the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalitiesses is successful in having the assessment cap removed.

From my experience, assessments in Amherst will not stand up to scrutiny when compareds to market conditions. Currently, there are 160-plus homes for sale in Amherst. Are we seeing the law of diminishing returns being applied to Amherst?

What this law means is that when costs continue to rise with no incremental benefit, individuals or business will abandon the process and see alternative accommodations or locations where value for investment is seen as beneficial.

Continuing to increase tax rates to fund out of control costs or debt will see more homeowners and business abandon Amherst for locations that provide better value for money.

Given that 59 per cent of our population is over 50 and on some type of fixed income, it stands to reason that these individuals will seek locations where their income can support a better quality of life at a lower cost.

Perhaps council needs to pay closer attention to the expenditure side of the budget. The Engage Nova Scotia presentation held in Amherst clearly statement that the status quo was not acceptable, however, council passed a budget with a .1 per cent reduction in income and expenditures or $24,808. Looks like the status quo to me.

Also in the article it was noted that council should have raised taxes by $.02 per $1,000, however council elected not to do this.

This raises the two questions: Was the budget passed to enhance the re-election of the existing councillors and does the budget accurately reflect the financial position of the town?

Perhaps people are not moving to Amherst due to its high tax rates. Recreations facilities alone will not attract anyone-young or old to Amherst if the cost of living here is seen as prohibitive. I agree Amherst needs to attract people, however, the promise of jobs is beyond the ability of any council to deliver.

The Municipal Act states quite clearly that a municipality cannot offer incentives to attract business; that falls within the mandate the provincial governments.

It should also be noted that while the town appears to spend excessively on its recreation facilities, the town continues to dissuade utilization of our facilities by charging exorbitant rents. The loss of the dog show to Springhill and the Junior A draft to West Highlands are two examples where individuals would normally come to town for an event and support our local hotels, restaurants and other amenities.

However, given the shortsightedness of town officials in their cost recovery process, the opportunity for our small businesses to benefit from these events were lost. Can one wonder why small business doesn’t survive in Amherst?

Perhaps, in addition to looking at the expenditure side of the budget, the town officials should review the ownership of the 209 pieces of property registered to the town of Amherst.

Since when does a town the size of Amherst need to hold such a massive amount of real estate. If it is for economic development, the budget of $387,896 will certainly not go a long way in attracting development.

Perhaps the article on Chase the Ace should outline what resources the town will be required to expend to even consider the venue.

Sydney had a base of 400 volunteers for a 52-week period, Inverness the entire town. 

Mr. Baker proposed that town staff will run the venue utilizing the stadium but at what costs? Will rent be charged or will it show as a donation in kind?

Likewise, for the other costs- staff overtime, policing, armoured car, financial oversight, facilities repair and clean up, entertainment, licensing, the outside agency noted in the article, the split with the other service clubs, the contracts required to ensure all participants are receiving an equitable share etc. The list can go on, however, it would seem from the article, the town would cover these costs, and what happens if the ace is drawn in the first month?

Perhaps the town and its staff can communicate how it intends to fund the $3 million in improvements included in the recreation master plan. Will it be by way of a special tax, and increase in the tax rate, an increase in assessments of by way of borrowing?

As good communication is key to any successful business, perhaps its is time for the town to start communicating with its taxpayers so an informed decision can be made before the election.

Now for the final article:

CBDC Cumberland to manage the new innovation centre.

I have no difficulty in CBDC managing this facility. My, my issue is why is the town competing with private developers and landlords for tenants.

Amherst is a small town with limited development and rental opportunities. Why did the town invest $1,689,000 to convert a building to suit their needs when most of downtown is empty and owned privately? If the argument is that the vacant building didn’t meet there needs, a $1.6-million renovation can make anything meet what ever needs you may have.

What benefits will accrue to Amherst from this investment and over what timeline will the taxpayers see the benefits? Will our private developers now leave Amherst as opportunities to expand and develop their properties have been diminished considerably and they now know they are competing with government enterprise, not only in terms of financing but also tenants?

While it was appreciated that ACOA provided $650,000 in funding for the building renovations, the town is now saddled with the ongoing maintenance of the building. Is the rent market based and will the rent cover the maintenance, taxes and borrowing costs associated with the building?

In my opinion, the town should not be in the development or real estate business and this project certainly required further scrutiny to see what benefits Amherst will gain from this development.

I must apologize for the wordiness of this article, however, when you attend a meeting of the taxpayers and they all indicate the status quo is not acceptable; and then a budget is presented that changes nothing, one has to wonder aloud what exactly is going on in Amherst.

If you put all the pieces together, it is my opinion that one can surmise that the town, while publicly indicating they would like to work with the county toward some type of union, is effectively, through their actions, placing Amherst is such a precarious financial position that at some point in the future, the town will not be in a financial  position to provide the services now in place without a substantial increase in tax rates or assessments.assessments.

As assessments can only come from further developments or through a change in the assessment CAP rate, once has to question which way is Amherst Town Council leaning?

At that time, the only alternative will in all likelihood,  be a dissolution of Amherst as we now know it. If past experience is any indication, the t and the town most likely would be in receipt of a substantial windfall from the province such as that provided to Springhill, Hantsport, and Parrsboro to facilitate the amalgamation and eliminate the debt which they would have incurred to build the many facilities which Amherst neither requires or needs for its long term survival.

Vince Byrne, Amherst