Mayors resist councillor's pitch to amalgamate Saint John region

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Mayors resist councillor's pitch to amalgamate Saint John region

Mayors resist councillor's pitch to amalgamate Saint John region

A Saint John councillor's proposal to consider merging the city and its outlying communities is being met with resistance from regional mayors, including Saint John's.

Coun. Ray Strowbridge will make a motion during Monday's council meeting to request the province "investigate and consider amalgamation of the Greater Saint John Area into one single Saint John Regional Municipality."

"Both the Finn Report and the recent fair taxation study have both cited governance as a problem," Strowbridge's motion reads. "With one single city, services costs would be shared."

Adding the largest neighbouring communities — Quispamsis, Rothesay and Grand Bay-Westfield — alone would add 35,000 people to Saint John's population and vastly expand its service territory.

Amalgamation isn't a new concept for the region. The four municipalities were forged through municipal mergers, and the "a-word" often bubbles up as a topic of debate.

Strowbridge could not be reached for comment Friday.

Port City mayor response

Facing a stagnant assessment, the city is keen on increasing its population and improving its finances.

Yet, Saint John Mayor Don Darling said amalgamation isn't the answer — for now. The mayor said Friday the focus for the years to come should remain on pursuing growth and righting the fiscal ship.  

Darling said he hasn't seen a business case for a municipal merger and such a move would have to be formed from "evidence-based, data-driven decision."

Once Saint John's books are in better shape, he said then it could be time for a discussion.

"What would it look like if we got a number of people together a number of years down the road and designed what a regional super city would look like?" he said.

Darling said in the meantime, however, the region should "focus on tangible evidence of regional co-operation."

He said the regional framework could be improved considering the amount of outlying residents who enter the city for work and play. The mayor said the neighbouring communities don't have the infrastructure obligations, meaning their "tax rate can be kept artificially low."

Wouldn't entertain the thought

The notion was met with a resounding 'no' from the Kennebecasis Valley mayors on Friday.

Both Rothesay Mayor Nancy Grant and Quispamsis Mayor Gary Clark said the towns contribute plenty to Saint John annually, to the tune of about $750,000 each for city-based facilities, regional services, donations and their portion of the regional economic development agency, Enterprise Saint John.

"Rothesay does pay its fair share of regional expenses and more than its fair share," said Grant, adding the town is faced with a heavy tax burden despite perceptions.

"We have the lowest tax rate in the region, but we have very high assessments. That leads to a high tax burden and we contribute significantly to the provincial coffers."

Grant said the disparity in the equalization component of the community funding grant doesn't help their situation. Rothesay doesn't receive a cent, while Saint John gets more than $14 million, she noted.

Clark said there's little appetite for a merger in Quispamsis.

"I'm not prepared to entertain amalgamation at this time for the Town of Quispamsis," he said.

"Any suggestion that we don't contribute to Saint John is unfair and inaccurate."

Clark said the municipalities can improve regional collaboration, mentioning recreation in particular.

"We don't all need the same facilities," he said. "So why not share in the facilities in the Greater Saint John area?"

Finn report

The Department of Environment and Local Government said mergers are being led at the local level and communities have to approach the province to begin the process.

"The government supports locally led projects, but they are voluntary," said department spokeswoman Sheila Lagacé in an email Friday.

The Gallant Liberals encouraged municipalities and local service districts to consider mergers in its 2016 provincial budget. The province stated at the time any future amalgamations or annexations must meet the criteria set out in the Finn report.

The 2008 report, penned by former local governance commissioner Jean-Guy Finn, proposed slashing the number of municipalities and local service districts from about 350 to 53.