By WAYNE FIANDER
Sobeys CEO Bill McEwan’s recent statement on the number of elected municipal representatives in Pictou County was an accurate assessment of too much local government being a barrier to progress.
Two municipalities, HRM and CBRM, represent more than half the population, half of the homes and 57 per cent of the uniform assessment of Nova Scotia and both are talking about reducing the number of elected representatives. The other 53 municipal units represent less than 10,000 people each. In fact, there are seven towns that represent less than 1,000 people and three rural municipalities that represent less than 10,000 people. A larger number of elected politicians does not mean better decisions. It only means that decisions take longer and are often tied up in defending turf.
Provincially, the legislature approved an operating deficit of $222 million with little more than the usual 80 hours of debate. Deficits are financed by borrowing money and are simply delayed taxation that will be a burden for future taxpayers.
Another concern is that the province borrowed $537 million to contribute to the civil service pension plan without a corresponding contribution from the employees. The province also agreed to pay raises for civil servants of 2.9 per cent. During the week the budget was passed, employees of Bell Aliant agreed to a 42-month wage freeze in return for job security. Businesses can’t compete with the salary and benefits gap between the public and private sector, especially when the benefits to the civil service are made up of publicly financed, borrowed money.
On April 21, the NSGEU boss called for a boycott of businesses that ask government to end redundancy and ineffectiveness. Asking for efficient and effective services is not an attack on public service employees; it is a legitimate plea from beleaguered taxpayers.
In Southwest Nova Scotia, our provincial government abruptly stopped funding an international ferry connection to New England without a backup plan, creating great instability and uncertainty in the economy there. Northern Nova Scotia continues to hurt with the growing disparity of fuel taxes, and now a two per cent increase in the HST on July 1. Not only should our provincial burden be lower, it must be in tune with other jurisdictions in the region. More and urgent action is needed to close the gap between our province and our neighbours.
Provincially, nine health board administrations were created. Yet, we retained the complete staff complement in the Department of Health. Capital Health, for example, has over 360 defined senior admin staff positions that cost $33 million last year alone (according to the Capital Health website). The other eight health authorities also have a cadre of executive positions. Government must make health services more effective by spending tax dollars on professionals who serve patients at the bedside, not from behind a desk.
Public investment in education is important. However, as AIMS has demonstrated, the return on the investment is only average. As a province, we invest more per student while enrolment continues to decline. Successive governments have invested in new schools, computers and lower student/teacher ratios; and yet we have major employers stating they can’t hire some employees with a Grade 12 certificate because their math skills are at Grade 9.
There is now a long list of so-called economic development agencies from all three levels of government. Perhaps it is time for them to be streamlined and better co-ordinated to provide more effective services.
The status quo is not acceptable: One cannot continue to do the same things and expect better results. All taxpayers are better off within a strong economy and have a right to demand an efficient and effective government performance as they contribute to a civil society.
Wayne Fiander is president, Nova Scotia Chambers of Commerce.