A call will be put out later this summer for input from companies interested in running the public registries and modernizing the associated technology.
"If we want to position ourselves financially so that we can continue to invest in those core services that Nova Scotians have told us are important to them — health care and education — these are the types of things that we have to consider," Service Nova Scotia Minister Mark Furey said Tuesday.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Nova Scotia Land Registry and the Registry of Joint Stock Companies are due for upgrades worth about $30 million in total. The majority of that cost is needed to overhaul the Registry of Motor Vehicles in the next four to five years.
The registries earn about $120 million annually and cost a fraction of that to run — between $30 million and $35 million a year.
But Furey said the government could avoid future capital costs and redirect that money elsewhere if the private sector took over.
"Our effort here is specifically in the area of cost-avoidance, recognizing there are alternate options of service delivery available," he said.
He said other provinces, including Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, have similar partnerships. Manitoba received a $75-million upfront payment for its land and personal property registry. The royalties are projected to grow from $11 million to $24 million over the 30-year deal.
If approved in Nova Scotia, the companies would provide registry services while the government would be responsible for regulation, setting fees and maintaining ownership of the data. The companies would collect user fees and pay some sort of royalty to the government.
Furey said the arrangement would be similar to the Cobequid Pass toll on Highway 102. The toll, about 45 kilometres northwest of Truro, is operated by Atlantic Highway Management Corp. Ltd., though the government retains authority over its regulation and legislation.
He was adamant the registries would not be privatized like Nova Scotia Power, but the head of the province's largest public sector union said Nova Scotians should be wary.
Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said taxpayers expect the government to invest in public services and remain accountable.
"This government should just put a 'for sale' sign on the whole province," she said in an interview.
"When you put another player into the mix — you can call him whatever you want to call him — it's still privatizing a public service."
Jessome said she was also worried what a partnership would mean for public sector jobs, despite Furey's insistence that workers' rights and benefits would be front and centre in any negotiations.
It would take at a least a year for the partnerships to come into effect if the government decides to proceed.
Follow @melaniepatten on Twitter