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Windsor and West Hants councils trade barbs over amalgamation issue

Windsor Coun. Jim Ivey asks a question during the Long Pond arena discussion. Both council’s eventually agreed to look into joint ownership of the facility.
Windsor Coun. Jim Ivey asks a question during the Long Pond arena discussion. Both council’s eventually agreed to look into joint ownership of the facility.

WINDSOR, N.S. — It was a momentous coming together of two municipal units that have been at odds in recent history, however, not everything was rosy.

The first joint council meeting of Windsor and West Hants went off largely without a hitch, however, the discussion on amalgamation was divided and at times heated.

The meeting, which took place on Jan. 12, marked the first session of joint council since the previously elected Windsor council ended the practise due to a breakdown in communication.

The newly elected councils of Windsor and West Hants voted to get back to the table to resume open discussions between the two units.

During joint council they agreed to support, at least in principle, moving forward with the Long Pond Heritage Arena and potentially becoming joint-owners of the facility.

Both councils also agreed to continue to pursue such things as a regional fire service and study a connection between the Falmouth and Windsor Water utility.

Windsor Mayor Anna Allen said she’s excited about the idea of having a joint council list of strategic priorities, once each municipality has finished establishing their own.

But one item of contention, which prompted a discussion that lasted over an hour, was amalgamation.

 

Divided over amalgamation

“Council has received a letter asking for us to withdraw our application. We have not dealt with that,” said Allen. “However, something we have been trying to find out is to find out the funding the province will commit towards amalgamation studies.”

Allen said she’s been extremely frustrated by the lack of communication from the province on their role in the necessary studies.

“Until we find out any further information on that, we’re not doing anything more,” she said.

West Hants Coun. Jennifer Daniels said the two councils should continue to pursue “low lying fruit” that both councils can work together on.

“What would happen if we approached it in stages?” Daniels said during the discussion. “This is stage one, us working together as a joint council, picking our ways to resolve conflicts or look at ways of minimizing redundancies.”

Daniels said this idea is a gradual approach that builds consensus and trust.

“Being able to approach the province for funding to help us with the ways that we can work together, like linking the Windsor and Falmouth water (utilities),” she said. “Once we have the larger projects dealt with, why can’t we just go back and look at the next step.”

Windsor Coun. Shelley Bibby said they can’t afford to wait to make this happen.

“Doing this slowly… that’s what worries me the most,” Bibby said. “I understand caution and the need to be cautious, but my fear is if we go at it too slowly and wait too long… we’ll watch this community continue to regress economically and fall apart.”

West Hants Warden Abraham Zebian said many voters were frustrated with dysfunction at the municipal level, and what Daniels suggested could help rebuild that trust.

“I believe in walking before running and holding hands before getting married,” Zebian said. “I think the public would like to see that as well.”

Windsor’s mayor said she doesn’t foresee any money coming from the province to see if the two municipal units can ‘hold hands.’

“Ninety per cent of the people I talked to at the doors (during the campaign) said their No. 1 concern was amalgamation,” she said. “As a representative of the Town of Windsor residents, I’m not going to back away from that until they tell me differently.”

The first joint council meeting of Windsor and West Hants went off largely without a hitch, however, the discussion on amalgamation was divided and at times heated.

The meeting, which took place on Jan. 12, marked the first session of joint council since the previously elected Windsor council ended the practise due to a breakdown in communication.

The newly elected councils of Windsor and West Hants voted to get back to the table to resume open discussions between the two units.

During joint council they agreed to support, at least in principle, moving forward with the Long Pond Heritage Arena and potentially becoming joint-owners of the facility.

Both councils also agreed to continue to pursue such things as a regional fire service and study a connection between the Falmouth and Windsor Water utility.

Windsor Mayor Anna Allen said she’s excited about the idea of having a joint council list of strategic priorities, once each municipality has finished establishing their own.

But one item of contention, which prompted a discussion that lasted over an hour, was amalgamation.

 

Divided over amalgamation

“Council has received a letter asking for us to withdraw our application. We have not dealt with that,” said Allen. “However, something we have been trying to find out is to find out the funding the province will commit towards amalgamation studies.”

Allen said she’s been extremely frustrated by the lack of communication from the province on their role in the necessary studies.

“Until we find out any further information on that, we’re not doing anything more,” she said.

West Hants Coun. Jennifer Daniels said the two councils should continue to pursue “low lying fruit” that both councils can work together on.

“What would happen if we approached it in stages?” Daniels said during the discussion. “This is stage one, us working together as a joint council, picking our ways to resolve conflicts or look at ways of minimizing redundancies.”

Daniels said this idea is a gradual approach that builds consensus and trust.

“Being able to approach the province for funding to help us with the ways that we can work together, like linking the Windsor and Falmouth water (utilities),” she said. “Once we have the larger projects dealt with, why can’t we just go back and look at the next step.”

Windsor Coun. Shelley Bibby said they can’t afford to wait to make this happen.

“Doing this slowly… that’s what worries me the most,” Bibby said. “I understand caution and the need to be cautious, but my fear is if we go at it too slowly and wait too long… we’ll watch this community continue to regress economically and fall apart.”

West Hants Warden Abraham Zebian said many voters were frustrated with dysfunction at the municipal level, and what Daniels suggested could help rebuild that trust.

“I believe in walking before running and holding hands before getting married,” Zebian said. “I think the public would like to see that as well.”

Windsor’s mayor said she doesn’t foresee any money coming from the province to see if the two municipal units can ‘hold hands.’

“Ninety per cent of the people I talked to at the doors (during the campaign) said their No. 1 concern was amalgamation,” she said. “As a representative of the Town of Windsor residents, I’m not going to back away from that until they tell me differently.”

West Hants Chief Administrative Officer Cathie Osborne and Windsor CAO Louis Coutinho address joint council for the first time.

Mayor wants studies first

Allen hammered home the point of needing studies to know whether or not amalgamation makes sense for the region.

“We need to have a study done to see what the best structure is for our community,” Allen said.

“I have no fear of a study; if that study comes out and says ‘don’t even think about amalgamating’ it’s not going to happen,” she said. “But if it comes out and says ‘this is your best government structure,’ why would I reject that?”

West Hants Coun. Tanya Leopold said she’s not convinced the studies that have yet to be conducted will be accurate.

“You can have a study for anything you want, in fact I’ve read studies that say margarine is no good, I’ve read studies that says butter is no good,” Leopold said. “Studies can say whatever you want, numbers can be manipulated however you want.”

Leopold said the vast majority of her constituents were opposed to amalgamation, mainly due to a perceived increase in the tax rate.

Allen said the only way to get information on amalgamation is by doing a study, everything else is speculation.

“I’m not sure why anybody is opposed to it until there’s a study that shows the implications,” Allen said. “If the implications are that everybody’s tax rate goes up… nobody is going to want amalgamation. We won’t know that until we have a study.”

Zebian said he’s in favour of a plebiscite if amalgamation goes ahead.

After a lengthy discussion, councillors from both municipalities agreed to leave the conversation for now.

 

More joint council sessions to come

Both Allen and Zebian said they were happy with the first joint council session.

“I’m very happy we met, I’m very happy with the successes we had, particularly the hockey heritage centre, that was a huge issue for us and this has given us a venue to move forward,” Allen said following the meeting.

“I think the (regional) fire service is going to take time, as their CEO has said, but at the same time, she is working on it,” she said. “I think they have to clean up some of their own issues on that, but a regional fire service, we both agree, is the only way to go.”

Allen said the main question left open is the timeline on establishing a joint fire service, but she added that she’d like to see it dealt with sooner rather than later.

Allen said that despite the division on amalgamation, she was happy to have the discussion out in the open.

“Amalgamation is such a strong subject, and I can appreciate their positions more now that we’re actually getting together,” she said.

Zebian offered a similar review of the meeting.

“The meeting was great, everyone was able to talk openly and share their thoughts and opinions,” Zebian said. “We discussed a lot of important topics that would take forever to discuss outside of our councils, and I think it was a good step with the heritage museum, Long Pond arena. It gives us a little more closure with where we’re going.”

Zebian said the amalgamation discussion isn’t over yet.

“Both council’s expressed where their citizens stand,” Zebian said. “I believe in democracy and I believe citizens should have the final say.”

Zebian added that he has concerns with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board dictating the terms of an amalgamation discussion in the future.

“A study is information, a study is important… information is good to have,” he said. “The whole process is pretty much out of our hands, and all of West Hants council want the citizens to have a say.”

The next session of joint council will be on Feb. 23 at Windsor council chambers at 6 p.m.

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