07/05/2012 01:37 EDT | Updated 09/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Most N.S. civil servants reject government request to move from Halifax

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's latest bid to spur economic development in the rural hinterland will move ahead even though 90 per cent of unionized civil servants asked to relocate to small towns have rejected the government's request.

Premier Darrell Dexter shrugged off criticism Thursday that the plan was poorly thought out and will degrade government services.

"This is a great opportunity for renewal," he said after a cabinet meeting. "There's a healthy market out there for employment with the provincial government. It's too early to say whether we'll have any difficulty filling those positions."

Three government departments were involved in the relocation plan, announced in the NDP government's throne speech in March.

Dexter said the plan was implemented to ensure government services are offered in locations where they are needed.

"It makes more sense for the Department of Agriculture to be in the heartland of agriculture," he said.

But he also made it clear the goal was to create jobs in economically challenged parts of the province.

"Prosperity in our province means prosperity in all parts of our province," he said.

As for the 90 per cent rejection rate, the premier said it wasn't a reflection of bad public policy.

"It's a rejection by staff members who don't want to move out of the city. It's not a rejection of the public policy. I invite you to go to Digby or to Shelburne or Truro and talk to people about that public policy."

In all, 93 civil servants — virtually all of them in Halifax — were asked to move to small towns. That included managers and unionized staff.

On Thursday, Dexter confirmed that of the 71 unionized employees asked to relocate, only five agreed to go.

Three from the Agriculture Department will move to Truro and two from the Fisheries Department will move to either Shelburne or Digby. Not one unionized employee at the Justice Department agreed to move to New Waterford.

The vast majority — 57 — have chosen to stay put. They will be moved to other departments, according to union rules. Another nine employees quit their jobs, which means 66 people will be hired to fill unionized positions.

Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil said he supports decentralization, but he argued Dexter mishandled the move.

"When you have 90 per cent of the civil servants saying they're not moving, it means we're going to grow the bureaucracy, plus lose some of the expertise that we've had in these departments," he said in an interview.

He said the government should have consulted with civil servants in advance to find out which ones actually wanted to move.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the government succeeded in creating jobs outside of Halifax, but at a steep cost.

"Some of these jobs are very specialized and it takes a long time to learn them and long time to build up relationships with the industries," she said.

"For them to think that it can be done overnight, I don't think that's accurate. ... It's going to take time for people to get up to speed. Every department will see an impact."

Dexter said the unionized ranks of the civil service can cope with this kind of turnover.

"We're experiencing that all the time," he said.

Jessome said that's not true, noting that Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau is losing 25 of the 27 unionized staff members in his Halifax offices.

"I've never gone into a workplace where 25 people leave within months of each other," she said. "There's always vacancies, but not a whole department."

Jessome said the union was never consulted about the moves.

Belliveau said he expects to hire new staff by the end of the calendar year.

"It's unfortunate that we have these numbers that don't want to move, (and) I certainly sympathize with them," he said. "But I also believe in our commitment to decentralization. ... People out there are willing and eager to move to beautiful rural Nova Scotia."