By RYAN KING
– with files from Rosalyn Roy
SOUTHWEST COAST — Regionalization has been a controversial issue for the Southwest coast as far back as the 1970s. Many of the towns that line the West coast are unincorporated, but through Local Service Districts (LSD) and community efforts, they have been able to support and maintain their communities. However, given changing circumstances like outmigration and an aging population, some towns find themselves struggling to deliver the services that they have in the past.
One proposed solution is regionalization, wherein communities can band together to retain the services they are used to, or even improve what is on offer. There still remains however, resistance to regionalization for a variety of reasons. Among these are fears surrounding possible loss of community identity, increased taxes, the belief that things are fine the way they are, the potential to trigger conflict between communities, and that the geography of the province will simply not allow regionalization to be particularly effective or viable.
Krista Lynn Howell, Minister of Municipal and Provincial Affairs, is confident that regionalization will work and ultimately provide better services for residents.
“For our province I think it can occur in many different forms, but the principle of it all is working collaboratively to do things that communities might not have been able to do in isolation,” said Howell. “We just want to ensure that we look at the province as a whole, and we figure out how to work together to create optimum levels of service for everybody.”
Howell believes that the need for regionalization is evident in communities that are currently having trouble delivering services.
“We have a lot of communities who run into uncontested elections, and overall, a struggle to keep communities viable. So they’re struggling to deliver services or to avail of economic opportunities, and that seems to be a little more prominent in more communities at this time. So by looking at a regionalization model, we hope to move forward to correct some of those inefficiencies.”
Regionalization could provide towns with more resources, such as the funding to staff full-time town clerks, land use planning, economic development officers, shared fire service groups, infrastructure planning, municipal enforcement officers, and other needed staff. Given the geographic diversity of the province, Howell explained that this will not be a one size fits all model.
“What would work on the Northeast Avalon certainly wouldn’t work on the South coast of Labrador. So we have to be cognizant of that as well. But we want to bring communities together, not necessarily as an amalgamation, but as a shared service. So I know some communities did have concerns about losing their identity or being forced to fall into this model, but that certainly is not my intention.”
Howell stated that there are many benefits to regionalization, but to be successful it would depend on the needs of the communities involved.
“The big picture is that it’s going to make it possible for communities to share the cost and share the services that they need to remain viable. I’ve said this before – we’re always stronger when we’re together. So by putting some of these smaller communities together it gives them a stronger voice. It gives them more emphasis to be placed on issues that matter to them.”
One prime example of communities already engaging in regionalization, though they may not know it, is sharing important services such as firefighting.
“A lot of these things are already being done by communities across the province. They’ve taken it on themselves, but they’re just not necessarily calling it regionalization.”
When it comes to the possibility of increased taxes, Howell conceded that the cost for regionalization is still being assessed.
“At this time we don’t have a number for that. We haven’t really put a price tag on it, but the premise of it all is fairness and an equitable share for everyone for the services that are provided right across the province.”
Howell noted that health care is largely in the provincial scope and therefore is outside the goals of regionalization, but regionalization does have benefits.
“When you look at the capacity for a community to have a recreation centre that allows the region to have physical activity, or if a region can apply for a water system that will bring clean drinking water, then you can see how these things would certainly impact the overall health care of a community.”
While the process for regionalization continues to move forward, an exact timeline has not yet been established.
“We are moving forward as quickly as possible. As quickly as reasonable, we’ll say, because this is an idea that’s going to take some time and is certainly going to require the support of the communities that are going to be affected.”
Howell explained that she and her team will continue to meet with communities to assess how regionalization would best work for them.
“It is certainly my intention to get to as many communities as I can get, a feel for what it looks like on the ground, because as I mentioned before, it is not going to be a one size fits all.”
One concern that has been expressed on the Southwest coast has been where the service hub would be for regionalization. For example, in the Codroy Valley, residents wonder if the service hub would be in Stephenville or Port aux Basques. Howell said that there are a variety of options on this front.
“That is probably the focus of our work at this stage, is to try to figure out what the best solution for service hubs would be. We’re looking at several different models of regionalization that could include services being delivered from a variety of locations, not necessarily a specific hub.”
One resident who is concerned about regionalization is Howard Farrell, who lives in the Codroy Valley. Farrell is 74 and a retired teacher. He is unsure what benefit regionalization would actually offer his community.
“What can regional government do for us? We have our own septic, water, and roads, paid for by personal income tax. Town councils can’t keep up their own roads. So why put another burden and a town council that exists and on us here? This is an attempt by provincial government to get more revenue from property tax, and etcetera, to pay off the Muskrat Falls debt caused by inefficient government handling of it.”
Farrell also said that if people cannot afford a power rate increase from the Muskrat Falls project, then they certainly cannot afford extra costs for regionalization. He believes that regionalization will introduce more taxes, which will impact low-income earners and seniors the most. Before any implementation of regionalization moves forward, Farrell would like to see a plebiscite: a direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question, instead of gathering opinions through avenues like internet questionnaires.
“I say leave it as it is to avoid pitting neighbour against neighbour and avoid a future uprising in this province, and this county, as it exists in other countries. And there should be a plebiscite to decide the issue rather than to use the internet to reach only a few,” said Farrell.
Farrell pointed out that this is not the first time that the Codroy Valley has been in opposition to regionalization.
“This has been on the go, this government thing. Years ago, back in the early 70s, they tried meeting up in the Belanger school to get town council here and believe you me, it almost came to fist to fist,” said Farrell. “And they tried it in 2017. Same thing. People just don’t want it, simple as that, and if you push them hard enough, they’re gonna fight back.”
Scott Reid, MHA for St. George’s-Humber, has heard from his constituents about the move towards regionalization.
“I think some of the things that, when I talk to people in the area, some of the people are very opposed to it. They don’t want anything to do with government. They see it as more taxation, and they don’t see many benefits from it. I talked to other people, and they see some benefits from it in terms of providing some order and allowing some different services to be provided, to be able to take advantage of some government programs, and things like that,” said Reid.
He explained that one potential benefit to the Codroy Valley would be when it comes to land use planning.
“In places now, like the Codroy Valley, pretty well if people want to start a business, or start a subdivision or anything like that, they can just go and do it if they own the land. There wouldn’t be any zoning as to where you can put a certain type of business. There wouldn’t be any restrictions other than the electricity, water, sewer and stuff like that,” said Reid.
He explained that when it comes to emergency services like ambulances, regionalization would allow for more effective services, by establishing a requirement for proper civic addresses on houses and other buildings. He also believes that a level of government closer to the people would allow for more input and efficiency.
“I think if you have a government that is closer to the people, you have more control over it in terms of what services, and how they want to go and things like that. When you get into bigger regions you have less local control over it, and maybe less efficiency in the systems. Those are areas that people in the region need to have input into.”
Andrew Parsons, MHA for Burgeo-La Poile, explained that regionalization is about communities coming together to solve problems.
“When I look at it, I look at it as a concept of finding groups or communities that can work together to accomplish things that doing separately or solely may not be possible. I mean, we’ve seen it in various places. You’ve only got to look next door to Nova Scotia to see that they’ve done counties.”
Parsons also noted that regionalization has been done in Newfoundland for decades.
“I think that what people may not realize is that we’ve been doing forms of regionalization in this province for decades now, and more important, when I look at the area I’m responsible for, we’ve had different sorts of regional models or regional working groups for various issues for some time. I mean, I look at waste management. It’s been something that’s been done under a regional basis for some time period. I look at healthcare. In many ways it’s been done regionally.”
Parsons understands the worry surrounding community identity under regionalization.
“I think people are cautious when it comes to the concept, because generally when we think about it, we think about being merged in with a bigger centre and losing things, but I don’t think that’s the way I visualize it. I look at it from a perspective of what are different things that we can do better working together.”
Parsons pointed out that with the changing demographics, such as outmigration and an aging population, working together is needed in order to thrive.
“So I think people are a bit guarded at times, but I think also, people also realize that we cannot continue on the same basis that was used 50 years ago. We’ve got different demographics now than we did and we’re going to have to do some things together if we want to succeed.”
Krista Howell said that the public has a voice on regionalization, and must step forward to have their say as she and her team travel the province to see how regionalization can best benefit communities.
“Our department just wants to let people know that we hear what you’re saying, we know that there are a lot of questions and concerns about how this rolls out,” offered Howell. “By all means, reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns, and keep an eye open for me and some of our crew moving through the province over the course of the fall.”