WEST HANTS, N.S. – There’s still some time before the studies related to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) are finalized, but both Windsor and West Hants councils got a progress update during a joint council meeting Oct. 26.
The studies, paid for by the province, are a stop-gap measure to see if efficiencies can be made between the two municipal units without having to formally amalgamate.
Windsor council suspended its amalgamation application with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board to go through this more conciliatory process with West Hants.
Ron Dauphinee, from the department of municipal affairs, gave some details and an estimated timeline on the status of the 11 studies currently underway as part of the MOU.
“The studies are what’s typically requested by the Utility and Review Board when considering municipal restructure,” Dauphinee said. “Individually, these studies are important, but when taken together as a whole, they should, I hope, paint a picture of both the merits and demerits of coordinated government.”
The comprehensive studies include looking at a variety of the two unit’s operations, including: human resources, finance, police, fire, water, roads, infrastructure and governance.
Most of the studies are expected to be completed between Nov. 30 and Jan. 1, 2018, a timeline Dauphinee described as “aggressive,” although some could take longer to complete.
The feasibility study on the new Windsor – West Hants Hockey Arena proposals is not part of this process.
Dauphinee said this situation is unique because both councils agreed to work together, removing themselves from the typical UARB model.
However, the UARB process is only suspended while this memorandum of understanding is underway.
The studies will ultimately try to determine where efficiencies, gaps in services, or redundancies can be found between the two units.
West Hants chief administrative officer Cathie Osborne said, depending on how a new services model is delivered, fewer staff - especially at the senior level - would be required.
“The elephant in the room is: Will we, as your CAOs, have enough information for you?” Osborne said. “The Town of Windsor’s council have delayed their movement with the Utility and Review Board, that’s the biggest question.”
Windsor’s suspension of the application to the UARB lasts until February 2018.
“It is a very challenging timeline to a certain extent, but once we get this information, the biggest challenge will be determining how you as councillors work through it,” she said. “It’ll take more than one facilitated session, it’s a process.”
Municipal staff, including the two CAOs, are handling some of the reports internally, with municipal affairs working on or assisting with the remainder, while also consulting with provincial and municipal institutions, such as RCMP and fire departments.
‘Properly inform the community’
Windsor chief administrative officer Louis Coutinho said he’s hopeful these studies will clear the air on what could happen.
“Once this is done, the whole issue of tax rates and the impact of the town’s debt on the residents of West Hants, there’s a lot of misinformation on that, about taxes going up,” he said. “All of those things will come up with this study, to properly inform the community.”
Mayor Anna Allen asked if the studies will only address financial impact or also look into how changes could impact residents.
Dauphinee said the studies primarily address the financial side in the first phase, while looking at the human factor of choices next year.
Coun. Tanya Leopold questioned whether the studies would show how taxes would be impacted.
“We’re looking at it in a variety of ways, there’s no one answer here,” Osborne replied. “It could be a recommendation to council for a shared services model or a regionalized model, or something entirely different.”
It will ultimately be up to each elected council to decide how to go forward, she added.
West Hants Warden Abraham Zebian said he’s confident that the studies will be done effectively and competently to give both councils a clear indication of how they can move forward.