Q&A on Nova Scotia Governance with Robert Frost, Municipal Advisor
Last week I sat down with Robert Frost, a Municipal Advisor with the Province of Nova Scotia, to discuss his experience with rural governance in the province. The Q&A below is not an exact transcript, but captures a summary of our conversation.
MM – What is your position with the government?
RF – I’m one of three municipal advisors whose role it is to liaise between the provincial government and municipalities. Previously I was CAO of Hantsport, which went through the dissolution process, so I have first-hand experience with that type of governance restructuring.
MM– What challenges do you see facing rural municipal governance in NS?
RF- The challenges faced in rural Nova Scotia are similar across rural Canada. There are compounding challenges of out-migration and aging infrastructure. As people leave, there is a smaller tax base to address the rising costs of infrastructure. Urbanization is also a challenge. I don’t see it due to any particular policies, but simply a positive feedback loop of more resources leading to more people, which leads to more resources. The opposite happens in rural Nova Scotia. For example, many people want to live where there are recreation facilities so they move to where the facilities are. Those small communities without these facilities do not have the population base to support them and are likely shrinking, not growing that population.
In terms of challenges to everyday running of municipal government, there is a requirement for stringent financial and governing accountability. This is a good thing, but requires a high level of capacity for municipalities and highly skilled positions such as Director of Finance and Public Works are very costly. A small community with very few employees cannot necessarily afford all of the resources that may be required.
MM– What opportunities exist?
RF – Rural Nova Scotia needs to focus on selling what it is. We need to focus on the millions of people in the world who would love rural NS just for what it is. There are people across Canada and the world who already have the values, interest, and needs that rural Nova Scotia has. Just the same as those who already live here and love it. Immigration is a huge opportunity as people look for somewhere that is safe, has lots of land, reasonable taxes, and close-knit communities.
MM– What changes are you seeing and do you predict for rural governance in NS?
RF– Rural municipal governance needs to be more efficient. For communities with fewer people, there is more pressure on those remaining to maintain service levels. Aging infrastructure costs are going up and the tax base is going down. So it becomes a challenge of attracting more people to keep the tax base, or finding ways to be more cost effective. Small communities in close proximity to one another need to work together, whether that is through a change in governance structure or service sharing provisions.
MM– How does the provincial government work with municipalities to overcome these challenges and take these opportunities?
RF- This government has been supportive of any municipalities who want to work with neighbours to create change whether that be partnerships, other efficiencies or structural change. The Department of Municipal Affairs can assist to facilitate the direction a municipal government chooses to make improvements. Change is a constant. As far as governance goes, there were three communities last year that made a governance change, and there are three more that are currently in the process. There are also other initial discussions happening as well.
The new Regional Enterprise Networks are working to support communities with their economic development strategies, and the province working on immigration to assist in attracting people to the province.
MM– What questions would you want a rural researcher to study?
RF– What’s working really well in rural Canada? or around the world?
Are there governance models that are more effective/efficient?
Are other provinces that are taking a more forceful approach to municipal governance change having success?
Are there rural jurisdictions having success in curbing out-migration or increasing in-migration?
If you are unfamiliar with the provincial context, take a look at these news articles on recent governance changes in rural Nova Scotia:
Springhill N.S. likely first of many rural communities forced to amalgamate
Editorial: Municipalities show courage to change
Parrsboro weighing amalgamation proposal
Municipal reform meeting to discuss amalgamation, dissolution planned
I would love to hear your thoughts in response to this interview. Is your jurisdiction facing similar challenges and opportunities? What is being done about it? Does your research help to answer any of these questions?
Until next time,
Governance Team Support