In January 2021, Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) presented a Municipal Solutions Platform to its members. The document, which is available online at municipalnl.ca, outlines key advocacy priorities for MNL, including municipal financial sustainability, innovation in infrastructure, and regionalization among other pressing issues.
Regionalization has been promoted in this area over the past few years, including via a public Q&A at the College of the North Atlantic in Port aux Basques. It can be argued that some regionalization has already taken place.
The Dr. Charles L. LeGrow Health Centre, for example, is located in Port aux Basques but serves the entirety of the Southwest Coast, as does the local RCMP detachment. Waste management is also a shared service, and the fire departments have agreements in place to render support to each other.
But in the wake of shrinking tax bases, limited service and escalating expenses, MNL believes that by sharing costs and services, communities can be even stronger together.
With that in mind, the Wreckhouse Weekly posed a series of four questions to municipal leaders along the Southwest Coast. Municipal leaders from Port aux Basques (Mayor John Spencer), Isle aux Morts (Mayor Nelson Lillington) and Rose Blanche-Harbour Le Cou (Town Council) responded via e-mail.
Q: Have you had a chance to review the platform yet?
IAM: I have reviewed the platform. Regionalization has been discussed for years and the residents of Small Town NL do not support Regionalized Municipal Governments. If the Provincial Government is aiming at regionalizing services then the SW Coast has been doing that for a long time. Our Waste Management is a shared service, we assist one another with Fire Departments and the ambulance services.
PAB: The model for regionalism that has exited in other jurisdictions in Canada will not exist in NL for a long time. Newfoundland has no history of regional government.
What does exist are many areas with no governance models what so ever, areas with governance models in the form of volunteer-appointed boards created out of necessity for common services (i.e. water supply) and areas incorporated as municipalities under legislation.
Thrown in the mix of all of this, outside of the Avalon, is a shrinking, aging, scattered population where even the organized legislative municipalities are struggling to survive the fiscal realities of maintaining aging infrastructure, new regulatory processes and adding to services. In other words, towns such as Port Aux Basques are very expensive to operate in fulfilling a mandate of residential services.
RB: They have not yet had a chance to review the platform however there are many areas of regionalization that will not pertain to this community due to the demographics to the area.
Council is not opposed to the idea of regionalization where it is in the best interest of the community and members.
Q: What are your thoughts on the fiscal realities of your town as it pertains to Part 1 (Stable Fiscal Reality for the municipal sector), and is regionalization a possible solution being considered as the tax base declines?
IAM: For the day to day operations of the Town of Isle Aux Morts we are capable of maintaining all the current services that we currently have. With property taxes, poll taxes, the MOG and Gas Taxes this town council have not had to cut or reduce any services provided or have a drastic increase in taxation in the three and a half years that I have been Mayor.
PAB: Provincial and federal governments are aware of the financial difficulties facing municipalities. It is for this reason that representatives of both levels of government work tirelessly seeking programming funding for everything from street improvements, the provision of clean drinking water and fire services.
However, most often it is never enough with crippling formulas forcing communities to borrow to participate in given the limited options for local revenues.
Q: What are your thoughts on climbing infrastructure costs as it pertains to Part 2 (Innovation in Infrastructure) and is your town planning to employ more green solutions to help offset these costs. If so, what are some green solutions you are exploring?
IAM: The cost of infrastructure upgrades is unbelievable. This past Fall the Town of Isle Aux Morts conducted Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the Water and Sewer upgrades through the Capital Works Program.
The cost to upgrade water lines and to add to the towns sewer system in these phase was approximately $750,000, the Town was responsible for 10% of this cost. For this price we got maybe 1.5 kms of new pavement and 25 new houses that will be added to the sewer system in the fall.
Whether Regionalization becomes a reality or not these prices makes it unlikely that small town NL will ever achieve sufficient wastewater treatment.
PAB: Primary sources of revenue for municipalities are based on property taxes, commercial taxes, and grants. The narrow focus of taxes on property and commercial activity does limit funding available to municipalities.
Residents and businesses cannot afford to pay more. There needs to be a new source of income for municipalities. This should be tied to federal and provincial taxes.
A small portion of sales tax towards the operational cost of municipalities would take the burden of an uncertain future facing crumbling infrastructure with little option other to borrow to replace water and sewer systems, streets and other services.
Q: Do you believe that your town lacks any municipal supports to attract new residents or serve your current residents?
IAM: Attracting new residents will always be difficult, however, I believe that the Town of Isle aux Morts has the municipal supports to serve the current residents.
PAB: Regional government along the Southwest corner will not happen, just as it will not happen in many areas of the province. While geographically it appears to be a natural fit as a region from South Branch to Rose Blanche, the distance between the two boundaries is too vast.
What does work, and does have a future, is regional services such as what we see now in terms of waste management. This same element of successful cooperation can exist in the form of savings for municipalities within the region in relation to a common identity in purchasing supplies such as salt and sand for winter road conditions.
Regional participation and support for recreational activities and tourism does exist and can be built upon. As an example there are great benefits to be derived for the entire area in relation to trail way development and promotion of tourism. Marketing the entire area as one benefits all within the region.
But beyond regional planning and sharing any formalized legislated form of regional government will not happen.
RB: We do not feel the town lacks any municipal support in attracting new residents. We currently have approximately 60 seasonal residents in our community.