New Brunswick’s (NB) system of local governance, implemented in the 1960s under the Robichaud government’s equal opportunity programme, dissolved the existing county system and replaced it with one that focused on the province’s many cities, towns, and villages. This left rural areas largely unincorporated and, since then, NB’s municipal structures have remained unchanged (other than a few forced amalgamations).
Although the rationale to dissolve the county system in the 1960s was defensible, NB has since failed to modernize its municipal system in a way that better equips local governments to deal with contemporary challenges. The infamous 2008 Finn Report on local government, for instance, noted that many of the problems associated with municipal politics–particularly, the existence of too many municipalities, local service districts, rural communities, and taxation authorities (over 400 in total)–led to a duplication of services and infrastructure and resulted in a lack of fair cost sharing between municipalities. The report also found that it led to a poor allocation of provincial and federal funding.
An example of the headache caused by NB’s multiple municipal structure is the South-East Region, otherwise known as the Westmoreland and Albert counties. The region hosts two cities, three towns, nine villages, and a rural community. In addition, it is home to four local service districts and a regional service commission.
The Finn Report notes that, since 1967, there have been over 25 studies analyzing municipal governance. It identified a lack of progress in regards to reorganizing municipalities, other than some piecemeal developments in taxation policy and policies regarding unconditional loans and grants. The report recommended dissolving all local service districts, villages, towns, and rural communities and transforming them into larger entities. In addition, the report suggested amalgamating cities and their surrounding rural communities.
Indeed, many other jurisdictions have undergone similar restructurings in Canada, such as the creation of the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) in Nova Scotia. A body like HRM, which is an amalgamation of Halifax, Dartmouth, and the surrounding areas, prevents service duplication and ensures fair cost sharing. Consider the advantage for an area like Saint John, surrounded by suburbs. Currently, the city is on the hook for infrastructure cost within its limits, which everyone within the commuter-shed uses. In addition, the several towns and the city duplicate services in the area, such as policing and sewers. Regional cooperation would eliminate these problems.
The most common criticism of the “regional municipality” model is that rural areas and towns will risk having their voices diluted by the larger cities with which they forge. While this does pose a serious threat for smaller jurisdictions, they generally have little influence over local governance under the current system. Local service district boards are unelected and many rural areas do not have the population to justify the expense of operating as a village or rural community. Merging with larger townships, however, affords rural areas with representation on municipal councils and, therefore, greater representation in local affairs. Preserving the community’s identify could also be achieved through the creation of community councils.
In conclusion, NB needs local governance reform as the current system is outdate and has failed to keep pace with the rest of the country. Attributed to the shortcomings of reform is political will, as municipal changes have proven unpopular in past times. NB’s dispersed population and language divide worsens the issue. (Consider an area like Moncton and Dieppe, where city limits also serve as the separation of language communities.) Ultimately, the province must work around these obstacles in order to achieve a more efficient local government.
Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute