Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A response to “A Campaign of half-truth and fear...”

Dear Mr. LeBlanc,

After reading your comments I felt compelled to respond.

First, it is my opinion that status quo is not an option. To support this I would offer the following rationale. The Rural Community initiative came about as a result of the 2008 Finn Report which had been commissioned by the government of the day. Of note is that each successive government going forward has endorsed that document. In his report Mr. Finn laid out the arguments as to why the current model of Local Service Districts (LSDs) is not tenable. Adjectives such as inefficient and unsustainable were used.  There are several things that I clearly remember from that report such as the fact that NB has over 350 municipal entities. Nova Scotia by contrast has just over 70 and they have a larger population. These large numbers of municipal entities are expensive to maintain. Add to this the knowledge that NB is somewhere around $14 billion dollars in debt and one can understand government’s support for this concept. According to the Department of Environment and Local Government (DELG), NB is the last province in Canada to use the Local Service District model although my understanding is that parts of PEI still use LSDs as well.  

Considering the above facts in their totality (expensive and inefficient current model; $14B in debt; last province to use the LSD model; support by both parties that have held power) it is not hard to read the writing on the wall. The government has stated that this change will not be forced on anyone. My belief is that we will hit a critical mass when the majority of LSDs have moved to Rural Communities and then the government will mandate that the rest move as well. What is that number? I don’t know. So far there are ten rural communities which would suggest 30 - 50 LSDs have taken the step. There are more projects than York going on right now so those numbers will only grow. We may not be forced down this path now. Maybe not next year or the year after, but I am convinced that it is inevitable. I personally would rather take the step on our own terms rather than wait and risk being told how it will be done.

The figure of an increase of 1.5 cents per hundred as a tax rate increase was provided by the analyst from DELG as were the other cost estimates. Are they accurate? I don’t know. I am not an analyst but there have been ten projects go forward so they must have ample historical data to go by when determining the estimates for this project.

With regard to translation services, although this would be ideal, Section 35 of Bill 64 states “A municipality whose official minority population represents at least 20% of its total population is required to adopt and publish its by-laws in both official languages.” I don’t believe that we have met this threshold.

The suggestion that a Rural Community could hire its own dog catcher is only an example of what the Upper Miramichi Rural Community did. It worked out well for them according to their Mayor. It may or may not in the YRC but the salient point is that by being a Rural Community we have options and choices that we do not have now.

The point made at the consultation meetings concerning the Minister of DELG being our de facto mayor is true. If you believe that access to a locally elected mayor of 10 000 people would be the same level of difficulty as contacting a provincial Minister representing 753 000 people I would respectfully disagree.  You are correct in that you can contact other people such as our MLA or even provincial employees but surely we can agree that this is not as effective as contacting the person in charge such as a mayor or as is the current case, the Minister.  Further, it is a political reality to say that government (regardless of party) listens more carefully to its own members than those of the opposition.

In your letter you raised several concerns centred on the size of the proposed project area. When one looks at the map the area is indeed imposing. However, closer examination would suggest that this is true primarily because of the size of the Douglas LSD. Scrutiny reveals that the vast portion of Douglas LSD is sparsely populated at best. Further, I would suggest that easily 70 - 80% of the population of the proposed project area resides within 30 kilometres of Fredericton.

Your comment about adding another layer of government is not accurate in my opinion. We currently operate under a Local Service District model. If this initiative is successful that model would be replaced by the Rural Community form of governance.

I personally do not share your concern regarding decreasing population. Although there are some areas of the province (most notably the northern half) that are experiencing this reality, I have not seen evidence of the same situation around here. In our area I have not seen long term vacant homes but I do see new construction and an active real estate market. I would suggest that with our close proximity to Fredericton that we will continue to realize a modest level of growth. Certainly not to the same degree as enjoyed in Dieppe but measurable to say the least.

Regarding taxes, I too do not want to see any unnecessary increase in the rate. I believe that by being part of a Rural Community we are better protected from this and can do a much better job of handling our finances. To support my position I would offer the following:

1)  For 2017 the rate in Keswick Ridge LSD went up. When I checked into this I was told that $.04 was to support the new Fire Hall expansion. A further $.015 was to offset a reduction in the tax base of approximately 1.49%.  What I found troubling was that for tax year 2016 there was an overall increase of 5.5% in the tax base.  Why was there not a corresponding decrease in the tax rate? I have not been able to get an answer to that question.
2)  The tax rate is set by the Department of Environment and Local Government as is our operating budget.  Although our budget is set by ELG, during the year we currently do not receive any updates as to our budget status. In fact, even at the end of the year we are not provided with any information as to our budget. So we don’t know if we are overspent, underspent or dead on.  It is my understanding that if we are underspent the money is returned to government. As a Rural Community, we would be responsible for all facets of the budgetary process including setting our budget, establishing our tax rate and tracking our financials. As well, any surplus would be retained and made available for the next year.

With regard to your comments about a Local Service District having a say about their tax dollars being spent elsewhere I would again respectfully disagree. As proof I would offer my own experience at the 2016 Keswick Ridge community meeting. At that meeting the representative from ELG stated unequivocally that the Minister was considering allocating $38,000/year for the next 20 years from the taxes from Keswick Ridge to help support the Playhouse project. He further stated that he (the Minister) could do so with the stroke of a pen. I was there. I heard it. Further, check with your own LSD reps (I did). I was told that $20,000 per year for the next 20 years of Douglas LSD tax money was committed by the Minister to support the Millville Fire Dept. I was advised that this was done without consultation or notification. This is fact, not fear mongering.

In conclusion, I applaud you for your interest and initiative as evidenced  by your participation in not one but two presentations. It is my sincere hope that my remarks address some of your concerns.

Respectfully,

Ron Smith
143 Route 616

Keswick Ridge, NB

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