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N.B. mayors optimistic about municipal reform, but await details and finance reform

Click to play video: 'Excitement and nervousness for N.B.’s municipal reform plan'
Excitement and nervousness for N.B.’s municipal reform plan
There's a sense of excitement and nervousness in New Brunswick in response to the province's sweeping municipal reform plan. The Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick has been long calling for changes. The group is pleased more people will have elected representation, but say the devil will be in the details. Callum Smith reports – Nov 21, 2021

There is mixed reaction in New Brunswick in response to a sweeping municipal reform plan to chop the number of municipalities and rural districts in the province to 90 from 340.

“We’ve been pushing or advocating for reform for the better part of 60 years,” says Alex Scholten, the president of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick.

The status quo isn’t cutting it, says Campbellton Mayor Ian Comeau.

“I’m very happy with what Minister [Daniel] Allain recommended or proposed,” Comeau says. “I think it’s now time to sit down with other mayors, other elected officials, the transition team, and see where this will take us.”
Click to play video: 'N.B. to merge communities and slash number of local governments to 90'
N.B. to merge communities and slash number of local governments to 90

Comeau says he’s meeting with Allain this week to discuss the plan further.

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Instead of 104 local governments and 236 local service districts, New Brunswick will have 78 local governments and 12 rural districts.

Rural districts will have elected “advisory committees.”

Scholten says the union has been pushing for the need to have municipal votes — and voices — for all New Brunswickers.

“This reform has allowed for that,” he says. “So, the democratization of the province is one of the main points that we really, really like about this.”

Allain says work on restructuring will begin in early January and that the first elections for the new rural districts will be in November 2022.

Read more: N.B. mayors push municipal tax reform as key provincial election issue

But with changes of this magnitude on the horizon, there’s a lot to be worked out still.

“I feel that maybe it’s quite tight in regards to having all of this within a year,” Campbellton’s mayor says.

Comeau says some of his worry stems from the co-existence with regional service commissions.

“That’s another thing that we’ll have to look at,” he says. “Are they downloading too much to that regional service commission? Are they duplicating things?”

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The population of Campbellton will jump from almost 7,000 to more than 12,000 when it merges with other communities such as Atholville and Tide Head, forming “Entity 7.”

Meanwhile, Scholten says there will be “rough waters” ahead, but they’re trying to be patient.

However, he worries financial reform wasn’t part of this phase. That is part of a second phase, according to the province.

There’s no word yet on what will happen to tax rates.

“Paying for the services you get and not paying for the services you don’t get, that’s going to be key,” he says.

Scholten says the white paper will create a land-use planning “minimum standard,” meaning each region will have to follow specific building codes and zoning requirements, putting all areas on an even playing field.

The changes follow more than a year of public consultations, and Allain says most of the ideas presented were focused on economic development, tourism and community development.

Legislation governing the reforms is expected to be introduced by the end of the year.

Read more: Municipal associates hopeful as New Brunswick launches green paper on civic reform

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Sackville’s mayor acknowledges consultation happened, but the plan still caught him a bit off guard with its scope.

“We were thinking natural boundaries. We were thinking local service districts right next door and some that are probably closer to the centre of town,” Shawn Mesheau says. “But it went beyond that.”

Sackville will combine with Dorchester and several local service districts.

He says people and municipalities are wondering how this will impact them, but wants to offer some reassurance.

“You’ll still have public safety and you’ll have roads taken care of,” Mesheau says. “So we’re all learning. Staff are currently looking at the document.”

Despite some concern, Mesheau says, “personally, I think [municipal reform] was long overdue.”

He compares these mergers to the amalgamation that formed Miramichi.

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The new entities are to be formally established in January 2023.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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