Although it failed more than a decade ago, the town and county of Antigonish deserve credit for taking another stab at forming one single municipal unit.
On Sept. 13, Antigonish Town Council and council for the Municipality of the County of Antigonish met independently, then held a joint press conference.
At the meetings, the two municipal units passed motions to investigate and gather the information needed to consider amalgamating into one regional government.
Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher said over the years, many in the town and county have been asking whether they were ever going to discuss getting together.
Boucher explained this is a “fantastic time” for a consolidation, because both the town and county are “financially independent,” they are not being forced to do it, and there is public support.
The mayor said she spoke about it with Antigonish Warden Owen McCarron on a few occasions.
McCarron said the relationship between the two municipalities has been resilient and consolidation would build on those strengths. He said it’s best to look at this now, before a crisis occurs and forces their hands.
The warden said the two units will have an opportunity to create something “really great” that’ll serve not only the residents of today, but future generations. He said the town and county are “like-sized” and have “like-minded communities.”
Based on what he has learned, McCarron said Windsor-West Hants, which consolidated a little over a year ago, is already seeing a lot of benefits from coming together.
The warden said he and Boucher, as well as their CAOs, looked into information around amalgamation before last week’s meetings.
Before consultations begin, Boucher said municipal staffs will be doing more research.
Boucher noted that this process will not be rushed, and everybody’s voice will be heard during the consultation phase, over the next couple of months.
This phase involves assessing if residents, businesses, and communities would be better served by combining efforts on all municipal services such as recreation programs and facilities, events attraction, tourism, land use planning, solid waste management, infrastructure planning, and community economic development.
The first priority will be getting information out and getting feedback from the community, which will then set the timeline that will work for not only for the councils, but the communities they serve.
Now that the Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA) is involved in the process, the community engagement phase will take place in October and November.
By December, both councils will decide whether to enter negotiations with the province to join the two municipalities.
In the next step, which will take place in January and February, it is expected the municipalities and the DMA will have developed the special legislation.
The idea is to have legislation ready for the Minister of Municipal Affairs to introduce in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly by March, which would officially join the two municipalities.
In 2006, the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board rejected a proposal from the county to amalgamate, noting there wasn’t enough community support.
The issue dated back to 2001, when the Town of Antigonish applied to annex 1,600 hectares at Williams Point from the municipality. The municipality responded that the annexation would hurt its tax base, and instead applied for a total merger.
A plebiscite was eventually held and voters in both the town and county were asked if they supported the amalgamation, with 84 per cent of voters in the county in support of the merger, while in the town, 74 per cent of voters were against.
If the same plebiscite were held today, the numbers in the town would be different, whether they would be enough to show there is sufficient local support for making the town and county into one municipal unit, remains to be seen.
It’s hard to discern exactly how much things have changed. Without a doubt there are some town residents, groups and officials who are opposed, or at the very least, skeptical of amalgamation, that is in contrast with what appears to be an increasing number of town residents who now support the move.
Meanwhile in the county, it’s doubtful the overwhelming support shown for amalgamation has waned in any way.
As the mayor and warden both noted, this is a good time to move on this file. For the town, this provides a chance to grow its boundaries and tax base, and for the county, it avoids redundancies and duplication, which are costly and time-consuming.
The Highway 104 by-pass has forced some businesses to locate to the county, and within the town, StFX University has grown.
It’s time for both the town and county to benefit from these and other developments at the same time, and in the same way.