'People are scared to death': Rural residents concerned about municipal reform

·3 min read

Rural residents from across the province say they're concerned that the province's proposed municipal reform will bring higher taxes, urban regulations and potential amalgamation to communities outside city boundaries.

“People are scared to death about what’s coming down,” said John Goodfellow, who lives in the South Esk Local Service District near Miramichi, and is president of the Rural United Property Owners Association of New Brunswick.

The province is seeking "cooperation between communities when it comes to cost sharing and service delivery," the government states on its website, on a page created to explain the local governance reform consultation process.

The status quo no longer works, the province states. "This [consultation] process involves understanding the issues and challenges facing our local governance system and how they relate to one another, considering options to address the issues, and implementing changes that will make a positive difference. The exact nature of the changes has yet to be defined."

Since being named minister last fall, Daniel Allain has held approximately 85 meetings on local governance reform, with municipalities, mayors, LSDs, Regional Service Commissions and others groups, said Anne Mooers, director of communications for the Department of Local Government and Local Governance Reform. Meetings have been in response to requests to meet with minister, and in an attempt to meet with people in every region, she said, adding that more meetings with LSD representatives are scheduled for April.

"The local governance reform process is just starting," Mooers said. "The next step will be releasing a green paper [a document of proposed ideas for debate and discussion] to present options for feedback. No decisions or policy positions have been taken to this point. The formal engagement process will begin after the green paper has been released."

Details of stakeholder and public sessions making up this formal engagement process will be released in the coming weeks, she said.

Goodfellow said association members had a pleasant meeting with Allain on March 10, but it did not assuage fears over changes municipal reform may bring.

Mooers confirmed the March 10 meeting with Rural United. “Their perspectives were articulated and will be considered as part of the process,” she said. “We want to work together to identify ways to strengthen our local governance system and make it sustainable, while continuing to improve the quality of life for all New Brunswickers, both rural and urban.”

Urban municipalities often make the argument that rural residents don't pay their share for use of urban services, said Docile Cormier, vice-chair of the association, who lives in the Carleton LSD in the Kouchibouguac area, adding that's not always true.

“We live in rural New Brunswick because we choose to,” Cormier said, noting members are concerned they could be asked to help municipalities pay for underground infrastructure, namely water and sewage, which is unavailable to their properties.

But Mooers said the idea of people paying for things like water services they do not access would run counter to the minister's message, which is “paying for the services you have access to, and conversely not paying for the services that aren’t available to you.”

"Water and sewer services are paid through user fees and, at this point, it has not been contemplated to change that," she said.

In response to calls that rural residents pay their share of facilities like new arenas, with the idea that everyone in the area makes use of them, Cormier counters that many rural residents may be retired and have no use for arenas.

A user-pay system would make more sense, said Goodfellow. “If we are using something, we should darn well pay our share.”

Plans for reform will be announced in the fall, after the public consultations are complete, according to a timeline on the Local Governance Reform website.

Clara Pasieka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal