Uniformity is the natural driving force of the bureaucrat. Minimizing the number of organizational structures streamlines the decision process and makes it easier to provide all New Brunswickers with similar service standards for an equitable tax share. So why not amalgamate the 371 local administrative units into a more manageable number?
The problem, as administrators and politicians are once again learning (or should be learning if they are paying attention), is that residents cling to seemingly quaint concepts like “rural identity” or “neighbourhood community” or “civic pride.” New Brunswickers, like people everywhere, express themselves, in part, by where they choose to live. For some it might be a tiny apartment above a local bistro – for others a rambling house on a country road. The point is, that is their choice.
To the consternation of officials, they neither expect nor want identical services. Of course if you make them pay for them they will demand rural bus routes or piped water or whatever other municipal amenities others are receiving. But for the most part they would prefer to choose where to live; taking into account both service levels and tax rates.
All of that said, municipalities, as elsewhere across the country, are feeling the brunt of fiscal austerity with little hope of relief from the provincial government and, on the revenue side, they must deal with the archaic limitations of property taxation as virtually their only resource.
The government’s repeated commitment to review property taxation is encouraging, but no one can believe the process will be as politically painless and intricately interwoven as it is with counter claims between urban taxpayers and those in the Local Service Districts. In fact, it is hard not to believe that if opponents to amalgamation are successful tax reform will also evaporate.
Of course there are economies of scale to be achieved by consolidating service requirements for universal needs like public security and waste management into a common contract. But the means to do that already exist and don’t require amalgamation.
Without doubt there is considerable scope for greater co-ordination among municipal units in common sourcing, but take it a step further and create a one size fits all specification that provides the same services to everybody, as it would in amalgamated units, and you have an instant formula for ensuring unnecessarily high standards and the most expensive outcome.
Local government in New Brunswick is in crisis. Traditional delivery models just aren’t capable of producing responsive remedies. That is why the bureaucrats like the idea of amalgamation. But it isn’t the only solution. By all means, resolve the revenue issue but focus attention on the spending side for which a whole range of underused alternatives exist. Expand the role of public-private partnership in the development and maintenance of facilities. Determine which functions are best performed by in-house staff or specialized contractors, and they run the range from snow plow operator to payroll administration. Where the resources of existing personnel are especially valued, competitive tendering is a viable consideration, allowing staff to compete directly with outside suppliers to ensure the most efficient and cost-effective delivery.
With one of the highest property tax bills in the country, Saint John is an object lesson in the need for municipal reform. So delicate is the fiscal balance that unless the province permits an exemption from employee pension fund rules, services will inevitably have to be curbed during the current budget period. Those developments didn’t arise overnight. The remedies should be comprehensive and targeted. They involve a rational revenue base and they must address the need for matching differing service requirements with the best means of filling them. Our municipalities should not be running so close to the wire.
Don McIver is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a social and economic policy think-tank based in Halifax.