Government releases plan to reform local governance system
FREDERICTON (GNB) – The modernization of New Brunswick’s local governance system reached a significant milestone today with the release of the government’s white paper, Working together for vibrant and sustainable communities.
During the engagement phase, the government heard from hundreds of New Brunswickers requesting locally elected representation, better land-use planning and better regional collaboration. The engagement phase focused on four pillars: local governance structure, regional collaboration, land-use planning and financing local government.
Local governance structure
The white paper outlines a reduction of local governance entities across the province. There are currently 104 local governments and 236 local service districts; these will be reduced to 78 local governments and 12 rural districts for a total of 90 entities.
Elected advisory committees will be formed for each of the 12 rural districts and elections will be held in the same manner and at the same time as general municipal elections. The first elections will be held in November 2022.
“Giving New Brunswickers the ability to elect their leaders at the local level is an important part of the reform,” said Local Government and Local Governance Reform Minister Daniel Allain. “At present, 30 per cent of New Brunswickers do not have a say in how their area is run. We responded to that call with a plan to give them the ability to vote either for a local government council or a rural district councillor.”
During the engagement process, many people advocated for the restructuring of communities with shared interests and experiences. Many also advocated for a meaningful reform, which included bringing communities together to increase their capacity and viability.
The restructuring of local governance entities into local governments will also be supported by the provincial government through transition teams led by facilitators. The provincial government will cover transition costs.
These facilitators will be responsible for co-ordinating and overseeing several critical elements including:
• council composition and ward boundaries
• initial organizational structure and human resource matters
• change management processes
• legal considerations
• financial matters, such as audits
• the preparation of first budgets
The size of the transition team and its level of activity will vary based on the scale, complexity and type of restructuring that will occur.
Work on restructuring will begin early in January, with local elections or byelections taking place where required in November 2022. The newly restructured local governments and rural districts will be formally established on Jan. 1, 2023.
In the case of newly created local governments, the transition team will oversee the hiring of clerks or chief executive officers, who will be in place by Sept. 1, 2022.
The municipal election schedule will be reset, with the next general elections occurring in 2026.
A major component of reform is collaboration within regions, especially given the new structural changes. Allain said establishing priorities and taking advantage of mutual economic and community development opportunities will contribute to increased capacity and growth for an entire region.
The roles of the 12 regional service commissions will be expanded. The provincial government will introduce legislation that would amend the Regional Service Delivery Act to include the expanded mandate of these commissions and the changes required to improve governance. These changes will include voting rules and the creation of a new leadership role within the commissions to oversee performance and operations.
“While engaging with New Brunswickers, regional service delivery ideas that we heard most often were focused on economic development, tourism and community development,” said Allain.
The changes to regional service commissions will be led and supported by the provincial government through transition facilitators.
The government plans to:
• Expand the role and mandate of regional service commissions to include economic development, community development, tourism promotion, regional transportation, cost-sharing on recreation infrastructure, and public safety committees.
• Give three commissions – Southeast, Fundy and Capital region, which encompass the three largest municipalities in the province – a social mandate to partner with the provincial government to ensure the co-ordination of services to address growing social needs.
• Strengthen the regional service commission governance structure to allow for improved co-ordination, including adjusted representation and voting processes.
• Enhance leadership capacity by expanding the executive teams of these commissions.
• Require the development of a comprehensive regional strategy aimed at identifying the strengths and gaps in each region and establishing priorities and actions.
• Establish standards and performance measures.
“There are specific concerns in some of our larger urban centres that need to be addressed,” said Allain. “The regional service commissions that encompass Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John will partner with government departments and existing organizations to focus on homelessness, poverty, newcomer services and mental health, to name a few.”
The provincial government will establish statements of public interest, which will provide direction on matters such as the use of agricultural lands, natural resource development, settlement patterns and climate change.
“We need to keep rural areas rural, and we need to ensure that our natural resource-based activities, such as forestry and farming – which have sustained New Brunswickers for generations – continue to provide livelihoods and economic growth opportunities to our children and grandchildren,” said Allain.
The provincial government plans to give local governments an additional tool to increase affordable housing by enabling inclusionary zoning bylaws, as was committed to in the Review of the Rental Housing Landscape in New Brunswick.
Legislation to ensure the implementation of this reform is expected to be introduced by the end of the year.
Financing the system
The provincial government will approach financial reform in phases.
Firstly, local governments will be given the flexibility to set different local non-residential (business) property tax rates. The provincial government has also committed to exploring ways to optimize the development of underutilized and vacant properties when appropriate.
“New Brunswickers want to pay for a system that provides a level of service that is fair, and they want to have input on what they pay for,” said Allain. “We know you do not want to pay for services you do not have access to. Different tax rates based on services are central to our financial reforms.”
As new and expanded local governments are brought together, differential property tax rates will be mandated to ensure those who do not have access to certain services do not pay for them.
Allain said downtowns are economic hubs and need the support of government in building capacity by attracting and retaining people, addressing vacant and underutilized property, and supporting economic development through incentives. As well, the government will be exploring incentives for industrial parks.
A new Community Funding and Equalization Grant will be in place by Jan. 1, 2023.
Once the implementation of local governance reform has begun, Phase 2 of financial reform will involve the provincial government focusing on:
• reducing provincial property tax rates
• reviewing the cost of roads in rural districts and former local service districts
• increasing the local service offerings for condominiums and apartment buildings
“Our government believes in taking action to ensure our province has a better future – together,” said Allain.