03/05/2014 01:22 EST | Updated 05/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia government says municipal changes on table as towns struggle

HALIFAX - Municipalities in Nova Scotia are open to discussing structural changes including amalgamation to overcome growing financial challenges, the province's municipal relations minister said Wednesday.

Mark Furey said as many as 12 towns and municipalities are facing financial problems similar to Springhill, where the council voted Tuesday to dissolve its status as a town and join the nearby municipality of Cumberland County as of April 1, 2015.

Furey said he spent the last five weeks touring the province and heard from several mayors and councils who are now ready to discuss options such as amalgamation.

"I recall only two years ago municipalities would not speak the word, let alone have the discussion," said Furey.

He said the provincial government is also open to ideas, although any future changes would be done co-operatively with communities.

"They are presenting models of future governance," said Furey. "It's not top-down. It's very much a partnership that we will continue to engage and support."

Furey said he hopes to make an announcement soon on a transition co-ordinator to guide discussions between Springhill and Cumberland County.

But Progressive Conservative Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie, whose riding of Cumberland South includes Springhill, said the government should push through municipal changes on its own.

He said leaving such matters to municipalities isn't working, adding that the province is over-governed at a time when property taxes in towns and municipalities are skyrocketing.

"We've seen very little voluntary reform like we're seeing from Springhill," Baillie said. "The time has come for the provincial government to show leadership on this and push through real reform at the municipal level."

Springhill Mayor Maxwell Snow said the town council felt it had run out of options after struggling for years with rising costs, a decreasing population and outmigration.

Snow said without the decision to join Cumberland County, which still needs the approval of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, the town of 3,800 would have had to boost its tax rate by 50 cents just to meet basic costs such as paying employees.

He said property taxes in Springhill are already among the highest in the province at $2.25 for every $100 of property assessed.

"We see this as an opportunity to lower the tax rate because we would have a larger base to draw from," Snow said.

He added that the problems faced by Springhill are symptomatic of those being faced by smaller communities across the country.

Dave Corkum, the president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, said municipal reform needs to be considered as a matter of sustainability as the province's industrial tax base also shrinks.

Corkum said his organization is conducting a fiscal review of all the province's municipalities with a goal of providing suggestions on how to proceed. He said the study is due to be made public in early April.

"One of the things you have to do is realize the concerns and then have a mind set where you have to look at change," said Corkum, who also serves as the mayor of Kentville.

Furey said his department has received the terms of reference for a governance study in Pictou County and he plans to discuss the issue with municipal officials there next week.