Imagine on Monday’s commute across the Causeway you looked up and saw the letters on the hill spell out Moncton.
You might think it was an epic April Fool’s Day joke, just like it was a prank when it happened in the fall of 1995.
But someday, it could be reality.
The 2008 Finn report set the stage for pushing ahead with amalgamation in New Brunswick. But in almost 10 years, little has been done (as predicted by Jean-Guy Finn, if government did not force the mergers). The report looked at reworking municipal boundaries to take the province from 101 municipalities and 276 unincorporated areas to 53 municipalities, each with at least 4,000 people and a property assessment base of at least $200 million. So, not really calling for Moncton, Riverview, and Dieppe to merge, but it begs the question: is having three local governments, plus those in Memramcook, Salisbury, Hillsborough, and other areas, really the best use of our tax dollars and our human resources? Does it hold us back on the national and international stage? Maybe, maybe not.
Back in 1995, when pranksters changed the Riverview letters to spell Moncton, amalgamation was a hot topic. Forced amalgamation was underway in Nova Scotia; Halifax, Dartmouth, and every other community in more than 5,000 square kilometres would become the Halifax Regional Municipality on April 1, 1996. While some residents and government officials still decry the move, others say it has spurred the community to success. Current Mayor Michael Savage, whose father was the premier in the late 1990s, states the “real benefit of amalgamation in my view are economic development and land-use planning.”
New Brunswick’s focus on amalgamation centres on merging LSDs with existing municipal governments. I think this is a great starting point. I live in an LSD. I’m not unhappy with the current situation; I even boast about the low tax rate it provides and the quality of services I receive. But as a citizen of this province, I don’t think it’s the best governance model, especially given our financial concerns. We are routinely held up as one of the worst-off provinces in the country. It’s not that others don’t have problems, we just have some of the worst.
In December, Moncton economist Richard Saillant stated that our province’s net debt will exceed $14 billion by the end of this fiscal year – and that doesn’t include money borrowed on behalf of crown corporations, such as NB Power. Factoring in things like costs associated with the Mactaquac dam, he foresees a taxpayer-supported debt equal to more than 75% of our GDP. Those are numbers similar to ones seen by Greece and other Mediterranean countries when their economies hit a crisis that trigged international concerns.
Anything we can be doing to avoid this catastrophic failure should be a daily topic of provincial politics. Do you care so much about being a Monctonian versus a Riverviewian that you’d give up being a New Brunswicker for it? Extreme, yes, but not entirely unimaginable.
Would amalgamation be a silver bullet? No. It needs to come with a new approach to municipal and provincial finances. It needs to come with plans to address our aging population and our increasing healthcare expenses. It needs to come with more cooperation and less competition among communities.
Amalgamation in Nova Scotia has been a bumpy ride, and one that still didn’t fix all the problems. But it shouldn’t be relegated to pranks and April Fool’s Day jokes. Amalgamation is an uncomfortable topic, but one we have to embrace. Let’s stop ignoring the elephant in the province. Let’s jump on its back and ride it to a more financially-sustainable future.
She Said appears Saturdays in the Times & Transcript.