Nova Scotia

N.S. hits pause on Antigonish consolidation

The province has ordered a new analysis on whether consolidating Antigonish town and county is the right move, after months of public opposition.

On Monday, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing John Lohr announced the government had heard from “a lot of voices” over proposed Bill 407. The special legislation would have dissolved the Town of Antigonish and joined it to the Municipality of the County of Antigonish in a new entity.

Both local councils voted in favour of consolidation twice, and Lohr said while municipal governments are a voice for the people, many residents raised reasonable concerns about the bill at a meeting of the provincial government’s law amendments committee earlier this month.

“That’s a strong point of our government, that we are willing to listen,” Lohr told reporters at Province House in Halifax Monday.

To address this, Lohr said several amendments will be made to the bill that will be shared with the legislature.

Because the most common feedback was that many residents didn’t feel they had enough information about the financial impact of consolidation on their tax rate, the province will require the Utility and Review Board (UARB) to do an independent analysis and report back on whether consolidation is in the best interests of residents in both town and county. 

Anne-Marie Long, who lives in the Municipality of the County of Antigonish, said she feels “wonderful” hearing the news, as she had called for the UARB to be involved during her own comments to the committee of MLAs.

“[The UARB is] supposed to be the watchdog and I have far more faith in them than a political appointment,” Long said Monday.

Anne-Marie Long urged the Houston government not to push ahead with Bill 407 until an independent study on the pros and cons of a merger can be completed and then the issue put to a plebiscite. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Long said it was inappropriate to bring the bill forward in the first place while a legal case against the town and county awaits appeal. She also said a plebiscite is still needed after the UARB report.

The UARB must report back to the public no later than Aug.1, 2024.

If the UARB does not find the consolidation to be in the financial best interests of residents, “we will halt the process,” Lohr said.

He added the province has decided against holding a local plebiscite on the issue.

Another amendment will exclude local elected members from the transition committee set up to handle the consolidation if it eventually goes ahead, after residents brought up concerns that this would be a conflict of interest.

A sign on a back road in Antigonish County calls for a public vote on a potential merger with the town.
A sign on a back road in Antigonish County calls for a public vote on a potential merger with the town. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

Instead, a UARB liaison and co-ordinator for transition will be appointed to oversee the process.

If it goes ahead, Michel Samson will take that role. Samson was former Liberal provincial cabinet minister and is currently a lawyer with Cox & Palmer in Halifax.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said Monday this change of course is “a sloppy way to make law” and is likely political.

“They are feeling the heat of big opposition to a piece of their legislation in a riding that is held by their health minister,” Chender said.

Health Minister Michelle Thompson is the MLA for Antigonish.

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said Premier Tim Houston should have the same stance with Antigonish as he did when he was an opposition member. At that time, Houston fought for a plebiscite when multiple towns in his Pictou County riding considered amalgamating.

Although Churchill said looking at possible impacts to municipal taxes is a good thing, the fact the PCs brought in the bill without that information “shows a real dereliction of duty.”

Process to be done by October

Lohr said he expects the process to be wrapped up either way before the October municipal election, so voters will either choose a mayor and council under a new entity or see existing town and county positions on the ballot.

Both municipal leaders have said consolidation allows the municipalities to pool resources and better tackle issues like housing aand infrastructure together.

In a joint statement Monday, county Warden Owen McCarron and town Mayor Laurie Boucher said the amendments signify a “crucial step” toward consolidation as the bill continues through the legislative process.

“Although the transition period will look different than we originally expected, we still firmly believe that consolidation is in the best interest of our community and look forward to working with Michel Samson,” they said.

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