By Mary Moszenski
As appeared on page A1


Unincorporated areas and tiny communities must amalgamate to achieve regional financial success, say the two men tasked with putting the province on the road to economic independence.

The third report released by the province’s self-sufficiency task force recommends government reorganize municipal boundaries as almost 80 per cent of New Brunswickers either live in, or near, urban centres.

“The solution is rather straight forward: we need far fewer bodies to serve all New Brunswickers,” the report states. “These bodies need to cover larger geographic areas, serve substantially more citizens and contain a larger tax base, thereby increasing their governance, administrative and financial capacity to fulfill their responsibility.”

Francis McGuire, task force co-chairman, said the issue of local governance has been studied repeatedly by various governments. It’s now time to establish a commission to reform the territorial, structural, legislative and financial organization of the province’s local governance system, he said.

There are 102 municipalities in the province, ranging in population from 189 people to 69,661 people, according to the 2001 census figures. However 87 municipalities have a population of less than 5,000 while 70 municipalities have less than 2,000 residents.

“It is a very complex issue but it is clear when you have 80 (or) 75 municipalities with 2,000 people, they do not have the required expertise and mandate to, in fact, participate effectively,” said McGuire, adding any reforms must ensure the needs of rural areas are taken into account.

“There will be a myriad of solutions. Those solutions are really too numerous to contemplate and that’s why we believe an expert needs to be appointed with that mandate because it will be complex and every single region will have a different solution.”

However critics say larger communities don’t necessarily translate into more profitable communities. Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said simply combining small communities won’t create economic success.

“The evidence is pretty comprehensive now that this kind of approach to municipal governance reform doesn’t deliver bang for the buck in most instances,” he said.

Cirtwill said it’s important for all residents to have some form of representation and that the amalgamation of unincorporated areas would likely be a good idea.

“But when you start talking about a 3,000-person municipality and merging three of those into a 9,000-person municipality, the evidence really isn’t there that you’re going to gain anything,” he said. “In fact, in many instances it’s going to cost you.”

Dieppe Mayor Achille Maillet welcomes the idea of expanding his city’s boundaries – and tax base. Although the mayor is adamantly against amalgamation of the three Metro Moncton communities, he said local service districts are benefiting from the city’s services without having to pay their share of taxes. For example, Dieppe‘s rate is about $1.56 compared to the local service district of Scoudouc, which pays about 90 cents, he said.

“I think it would be beneficial for a local service district in terms of services provided, even if taxes may be a little higher than what they’re paying now,” he said.

Expanding the city’s boundaries would also help with Dieppe‘s sprawling development, said the mayor. “We are running out of space of land. It certainly would be to our advantage if we could annex some local service districts to our city. It’s a no-brainer.”

The Tories, however, say the communities might not have a choice but to amalgamate.

Opposition leader Jeannot Volpé said the report is a return to the days of Frank McKenna. The former premier caused controversy when he forced the amalgamation of several communities, including those that now form the City of Miramichi.

In contrast, the former Tory government allowed residents of unincorporated areas to decide whether they wanted to band together to form a rural community, said Volpé.

“From what I’m getting now, they want to speed up the process and force it on people so we’ll see what the reaction will be.”