On the anniversary of Nova Scotia's latest municipal merger, the mayor of the newly-minted West Hants Regional Municipality says the consolidation has been an unmitigated success, although he admits it will be years before the benefits can be properly measured.
"Year one has been phenomenal," said Abraham Zebian, who became the first mayor of the new municipality on April 1, 2020.
"People talk about consolidations and amalgamations and automatically they get the doomsday scenario coming to their minds, but it's been nothing but a success here for the West Hants Regional Municipality. Our public has bought into it, businesses have bought into it, our organizations have bought into it."
But even Zebian didn't buy into it at first.
In 2016, when he was a councillor in the district of West Hants, he and the rest of the district council resisted a merger with the Town of Windsor when proposed by a citizens group.
The Avon Region Citizens Coalition made the unusual step of applying to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board for a citizen-led amalgamation, citing a "dysfunctional" relationship between the two local governments.
The Windsor town council supported the application, but West Hants's council did not.
Zebian says it was the approach, not the end goal, that he and his fellow councillors took issue with; they didn't want to be forced into anything.
"We wanted to be in control ourselves," he said.
It would be another two years before both councils would agree on a process for merging. In the fall of 2018, the province passed legislation that allowed for the creation of a transition team consisting of an arms-length coordinator and members from each outgoing council.
"And that was the key to our success right now was ... we shaped it," said Zebian.
Success still being measured
Municipal Affairs Minister Brendan Maguire agrees with Zebian on the merits of the consolidation.
"Really it's about financial stability and just having a path forward. And I think what it's enabled the Windsor and West Hants to do is to merge resources, to pool resources together and put them on a more sustainable path," Maguire said in an interview.
Zebian said the opening of a new sports complex last year and streamlining of fire services are evidence of the consolidation's success, but he admits it will take at least a few years to formally assess the merger.
A group of graduate students from Dalhousie University's faculty of management used the Windsor-West Hants consolidation as a case study to create a scoring system for measuring the success of municipal mergers. Zebian said he expects that system to be put to use once there are three to four years of post-merge data.
Tom Calkin will be watching for that same data to trickle in. He's the chair of the Avon Region Citizens Coalition, which he said is less active now than it was before the merger, but he still tunes into every council meeting.
"What we're looking for is economic benefits," said Calkin.
In the new regional municipality's first operating budget, expenses increased by more than $2 million, which staff said was "due to the Mandated Education Contributions and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police contract." Conversely, staff said "efficiencies" from the consolidation allowed the municipality to trim over $500,000 from operating expenses.
Calkin said he expects it to take more time for the economic benefits to pan out.
"You don't do that all in a day ... it will happen not just year one, but in year 20. So the fact is that it started now."
Calkin said he's also watching for greater co-operation within the community in "selling itself."
"For example, they are already working on trying to rebrand the whole area so that you have an urban area and a rural area that has come together," he said, referring to the former town of Windsor as the urban area, which is surrounded by the more rural areas that used to form the District of West Hants.
A template for other towns
Calkin said he thinks the consolidated West Hants Regional Municipality sets a template for other municipal governments in Nova Scotia to merge with neighbours.
West Hants Regional Municipality is one of only four regional municipalities in the province. The other three — Halifax Regional Municipality, Cape Breton Regional Municipality and the Region of Queens Municipality — were born out of amalgamations that date back to the 1990s.
More recently, there have been a handful of towns that have dissolved, often because of untenable financial circumstances, and been absorbed by bigger neighbours. The tiny town of Mulgrave was on the verge of dissolution in 2017, but halted in the face of resistance from the town of Guysborough, which it would have joined.
Zebian said he knows first-hand that change is hard, but he thinks the benefits of governance reform are worth it.
"I wholeheartedly recommend the process to all municipal units in Nova Scotia. It'll make you very much stronger and your community will buy into it and it's the way to go."
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