On Jan. 10, West Hants council made three motions involving amalgamation, with the main point being to instruct legal counsel and staff to request that the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB) dismiss the amalgamation application currently before them. If the dismissal is not granted, West Hants council wants the board to reconsider its decision requiring the municipality to fund studies. Further, they want a plebiscite held before the UARB could order the amalgamation of the two municipal units.
Most of the councillors who spoke during the lengthy discussion were in favour of the motions.
For Coun. Paul Morton, the $250,000 that West Hants may have to pay for the amalgamation studies was cause for concern. He asked how they would fund it.
“The money could come from either an increase in taxes or a cut in services,” said Martin Laycock, the director of finance.
For a residential property owner with an assessed value of $150,000, that could mean about $37 more a year in taxes. For Windsor residents, who already have a much higher tax rate, Laycock said that could equate to an additional $172 on their yearly tax bill.
Coun. Kathy Monroe, who was involved with the initial petition that launched the UARB's involvement in exploring amalgamation between the two units, spoke several times during the Jan. 10 meeting. She wants to see the studies completed so that council and residents will be informed before making any decisions.
“I assume that we have legal bills that are continuing to escalate through this and every time we add something to the mix, we've got more legal bills involved. Will (the funding for) that be coming from the same place?” asked Monroe.
Laycock said legal fees have already been budgetted for but any additional legal fees will need to come out from the same place: the tax rate.
According to the 2016-17 West Hants operating budget, the projected cost for legal fees was $106, 205, with $95,000 being budgetted. The 2015-16 budget was $77,000.
Near the end of the discussion, Coun. Randy Hussey suggested they may be able to get more work done without legal counsel present.
“As a broad, overall statement, I think we're much better served if we all sat down together as a group and discussed this without lawyers involved. I think that would work better to our advantage and to Windsor's advantage,” said Hussey.
The petition, which contained the signatures of 20 per cent of area residents, was presented to the UARB as a way for citizens to show displeasure with how they were being governed. The petition was conducted by the Avon Region Citizens Coalition and when it was presented in 2016, was supported by the Town of Windsor. West Hants' council of the day opposed the process.
Since that time, West Hants residents elected almost an entirely new council, and a few seats changed in Windsor.
Coun. Robbie Zwicker, who was Hantsport's mayor when the town dissolved its charter and joined West Hants, presented the motions pertaining to amalgamation on Jan. 10. He said that council believes the majority of residents do not support the amalgamation application and that “council believes that the municipality's residents are particularly concerned about potential increased tax burdens upon them resulting from amalgamation.”
Hussey took issue with how they can know that the majority of the population is against amalgamation.
“I don't believe that residents don't support amalgamation; I believe that residents just don't know what to do and it's our job to find out what to do,” said Hussey.
Coun. Jennifer Daniels was one of several councillors who supported Zwicker's motions. She said they should have the chance to work with their neighbours first.
“As two fresh, new councils, we have not been afforded the opportunity to sit down together and work on mutually agreeable areas that really we duplicate in and have some meaningful conversations,” said Daniels, suggesting they try to find some “low lying fruit” to work on.
Throughout the discussion, Monroe was steadfast that the studies should proceed so that they would have the necessary information to make an informed decision. She also indicated that the working relationship between the two entities still has a long way to go.
“I think one of the biggest issues we have is the growing and continuing division between the two municipalities here. Even though we're attempting to put lip service to cooperation, every action we take is a divisive action. I just completely disagree with that,” said Monroe.
Coun. David Keith said he heard loud and clear that his constituents were opposed to amalgamation.
“Amalgamation is formed because of weakness. Somebody has to be weak or there wouldn't be any amalgamation,” said Keith.
He went on to say the public needs to be consulted.
“We owe it to our citizens to meet with them in their halls and explain the situation. And believe me, they're not stupid. They know about amalgamation. OK? They're not children. It's around us,” said Keith.
The topic may be broached at the Jan. 12 meeting when joint council sessions resume. The meetings had been terminated in 2015 due to a lack of cooperation between the two municipal units. The meeting is slated for 5 p.m. in West Hants' council chambers.