HALIFAX, THURSDAY, APRIL 24, 2014
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPY
Ms. Margaret Miller
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The Committee of the Whole on Supply will come to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Madam Chairman, would you please call the Estimates for the Department of Municipal Affairs, Resolution E16.
Resolution E16 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $157,792,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Municipal Affairs, pursuant to the Estimate, and the business plan of the Nova Scotia Municipal Finance Corporation be approved.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I will now invite the Minister of Municipal Affairs to make some opening comments if he wishes and to introduce his staff to members of the committee.
HON. MARK FUREY: Thank you for the opportunity. I am very pleased and privileged to stand in this historic Chamber and speak on behalf of the Department of Municipal Affairs and of Service Nova Scotia specific to our budget estimates for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
I'm looking forward to the questions and comments from my colleagues and I'll do my best to respond and provide answers in detail. I'm joined here today with two senior officials from the Department of Municipal Affairs; Dan McDougall is the deputy minister, recently appointed to that role; and Marianne Hakkert-Lebel is our director of finance for both the Department of Municipal Affairs and Service Nova Scotia.
As you'll recall, on March 7th the Premier announced a significant realignment of government departments. That reorganization was the result of an intensive review of how government operates and began immediately after the October election. The objective of that review was to identify ways to make government more efficient and effective, but also to improve services to Nova Scotia.
As a result, the former department, Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, was the benefactor. No other organization of government provided a wider range of services touching citizens, businesses of all sizes, the non-profit sector and municipalities.
On April 1st the department transitioned into two distinct new organizations. Service Nova Scotia will be constituted as a special operating agency, one that will be more responsive to the needs of our citizens, our businesses and our not-for-profit sector. A special operating agency is an entity created through an Order in Council under Section 16 of the Public Service Act.
Until that process concludes, Service Nova Scotia will be structured as an office of government. Legally, the agency remains part of government for financial and accounting purposes. I'll speak more to Service Nova Scotia later in my comments.
The second change is the creation of the new Department of Municipal Affairs. It will focus on providing services to our province's municipalities, assisting them in meeting their challenges in both governance and finance. The new department also gains two offices that have important linkages to our municipal units. Those include the Office of the Fire Marshal as well as the Emergency Management Office.
It is with the Department of Municipal Affairs that I would like to begin our discussion today. I see the formation of the Department of Municipal Affairs as an important opportunity for the province to work collaboratively with our municipalities to provide them services and support. Over the past few months, I've visited 38 of the 54 municipalities across the province. I found our discussions to be both informative and very productive, helping me better understand their issues, their concerns and their challenges. Once the legislative session is concluded, I will continue with those travels and meet with the remaining municipalities to discuss the issues and concerns that they face.
I want to first acknowledge Dan McDougall as the first deputy minister for the new department. Dan brings significant experience to municipal government. As the municipal advisor within government in the mid-1990s, Dan built relationships with many of our municipal leaders across the province. He left government to pursue municipal government opportunities in both Guysborough and Colchester County for 12 years as CAO in both of those communities. Dan's experience is invaluable to our ability to move the intent and purpose of the new Municipal Affairs Department forward.
We face significant challenges in municipal governance. I've seen firsthand how important it is to co-operate and collaborate with our mayors, our wardens, our councillors and senior staff. I've committed to listening to our municipal leaders about the issues and challenges affecting their municipalities. The Department of Municipal Affairs will work with our municipal leaders to provide the tools and guidance needed to ensure we have strong communities. My door remains open to build on those discussions and to continue those opportunities in municipal governance.
As we all know, municipalities in Nova Scotia are diverse, ranging in population from 400 in Annapolis Royal to 400,000 in Halifax Regional Municipality. Geographically there are significant differences, from small towns to large rural municipalities. The department works with municipalities by providing advice and assistance and preparing policy on municipal matters of government.
My goal for the department is simple: to build relationships between our government and municipal leaders, but equally important, between individual municipalities. There has been much discussion around municipalities and their viability over the past number of months. The Ivany report has focused attention on the future of urban and rural Nova Scotia, our economy and specifically our economic future.
The Ivany report ties into the many discussions that are taking place with municipalities throughout the province. Some of these discussions have taken place between myself and councils, staff and councils, but they are also happening within and between councils. Many elected municipal officials are putting the long-term liability, the capacity and the effectiveness of their organizations and communities they serve first.
They are also considering governance changes to support this new direction. Municipal units, we know, are facing, to varying degrees, the challenge of additional expenditures. In many cases, the cost increases are difficult for municipalities to manage on their own. These circumstances are challenging municipal councils and administrators to finding new and innovative ways to respond. I recognize these challenging circumstances and I encourage and continue to pursue dialogue with our municipal leaders and their staff.
This has been a large part of my discussion with municipal councils. I've indicated to them quite simply that the province will support them to the extent possible in the decisions they make moving forward. Our towns, our counties, our regional municipalities are working very hard to deliver services to the residents and businesses, but some municipal councils are facing the unenviable choice between reduction in program funding and services or raising taxes.
Municipal elected officials and staff are also looking at how they can be more efficient and effective to ensure that residents are receiving the services they need. The recent announcements by the Town Councils of Springhill, Bridgetown and Hantsport to seek dissolution of their town status show bold action and leadership to strengthen their communities. We will assist them through this process, looking at each situation based on its merits, the financial situation of the town requesting dissolution and the rural municipality that will assume responsibility for that community.
Nova Scotia municipalities are not an afterthought in building a stronger province. They will help to lead the change in partnership with government, with business and the academic and non-profit sectors. My message to our municipal leaders has been clear and consistent: we will not impose amalgamations on our towns and counties. The people of Nova Scotia expect leadership from their elected mayors, wardens and councillors. If you look at the history of this facility, this Legislature, there have been more legislative decisions made in this Legislature than the collective decisions of all other Legislatures in the country. The history of this facility and this room drives us to engage our communities from one end of the province to the other.
The people of Nova Scotia expect leadership from their elected mayors, wardens and councillors, and we will continue to support them in their efforts. I believe our municipal leaders possess the wisdom to make the right choices and the strength to make tough decisions. That's been apparent in the leadership in Springhill, Bridgetown and Hantsport. We will continue to work with them to bring about the change they envision in collaboration and partnership with neighbouring municipalities. I believe there is a collective desire amongst our municipal leaders and their senior staff to work together to pursue change in the challenging times of municipal reform.
One example of this is a recommendation from the Towns Task Force. I'm excited about this new financial tool. I remember the first day in the department when I walked through and met staff. I saw this tool on the wall of one of the offices. I asked about it and it was explained to me. That financial tool will help municipalities identify issues, mitigate the risks and plan for improvements. That tool was extended in its draft format to each of the communities of Springhill, Bridgetown and Hantsport and was used in assisting them to make informed decisions moving forward.
The Financial Condition Index, commonly referred to as the FCI, is a web-based dashboard that provides an easy summary of a municipality's financial health in terms of revenues, expenditures and capital fitness. Developed by department staff in collaboration with the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities and the Association of Municipal Administrators, I personally believe, as does our staff, that the FCI shows what we can accomplish by working together.
The FCI will help municipal councils make decisions regarding their future direction and further extend them the opportunity to engage community residents in the municipal government process. That was apparent in the public town hall meeting in Bridgetown, where the Financial Condition Index and a second tool, the Debt Affordability Model, were used to demonstrate to residents the challenges that their council faced moving forward. We as a province can use the FCI to establish our own programs and determine the appropriate assistance for municipalities depending on individual circumstances.
This leads me to highlight specific programs and funding within Municipal Affairs in the 2014-15 fiscal year. This year we are introducing and providing additional transit funding in the amount of $3.5 million. Two million dollars is identified within the Capital Region, HRM, and $1 million will be used for public transit outside the Capital Region. This funding will help municipalities to provide funding for these transit systems, making it possible for them to direct their money to other services.
In addition, we are adding $500,000 to the Community Transportation Assistance Program, commonly referred to as CTAP. CTAP is a program that helps fund community-based public transportation systems in rural Nova Scotia. As we speak, there are 14 existing rural transportation systems, and there are four communities or regions that are in the research stage and early stages of public transit.
These services are aimed at improving transportation service to the disabled, elderly, and low-income Nova Scotians who need transportation to and from medical appointments, education and recreational opportunities. With this new funding we are investing in transit and sustainable transportation in partnership with municipalities and community organizations.
Having accessible and reliable transit service helps those who cannot afford to own or operate their own vehicle, or who have mobility disadvantages and have to rely on others for transportation. Additionally, we offer programs that help community-based transportation.
The Nova Scotia Transit Research Incentive Program provides funding to support initiatives that generate new and improved public transit services in rural and under-serviced urban areas of Nova Scotia. The Accessible Transportation Assistance Program assists community-based transit organizations with the purchase and modification of accessible vehicles. We recognize the financial costs that municipalities and other organizations are facing when providing and maintaining public transit for citizens.
We also have programs that support community-based organizations. The Community ACCESS-Ability Program provides grants to non-profit community organizations or groups, as well as to municipalities, to help with the removal of barriers for persons with disabilities in public buildings and spaces. Some of those projects include the installation of ramps, accessible doors and accessible washrooms.
Many are familiar with the Emergency Services Provider Fund, assisting volunteer fire departments, ground search and rescue groups, and other emergency organizations with the much-needed purchase of equipment: imaging cameras, bunker gear, ice rescue equipment, all equipment that they are able to apply in the performance of their duties to provide effective and safe service to their communities.
We also support our Royal Canadian Legions through the Legion Capital Assistance Program. This allows Legions to make necessary upgrades and repairs to existing buildings used to house Legion events and other community activities.
Recently I had staff forward a layout of all of our programs to all of the MLAs within the province to ensure that they are familiar with the programs and encourage them to share the opportunity to apply for those programs with their community groups, their residents and community organizations.
A new area following a pilot project of last year is the Flood Risk Infrastructure Investment Program. This $700,000 program was rolled out last year in the Truro area as a pilot project. It's now available to all Nova Scotia municipalities with an identified flood risk. I think we all recognize that with recent storms and recent weather patterns, they're coming with greater frequency and greater intensity. Costs associated to the damage and clean-up continue to rise. It's important to mitigate some of those financial challenges.
Flooding cannot be eliminated completely but the damaging effects can be reduced. This program will help vulnerable communities across Nova Scotia access the resources they need to identify and reduce their own flood risks.
Under the Nova Scotia Gas Tax Fund Agreement, all municipalities have submitted a municipal climate change action plan. Each of these plans outlines priorities for climate change, adaptation and mitigation and describes a range of actions that municipalities will undertake to address climate impacts. In many communities, flooding has been identified as a significant concern and is a top priority for taking action on climate change adaptation.
As I referenced earlier, the Emergency Management Office - commonly referred to as EMO - became a division of the department on April 1st. EMO is a good fit in municipal services. EMO focuses on the protection and safety of Nova Scotians during emergencies, which can range from severe weather events to forest fires, flooding and anything in between.
EMO works hand in hand with municipal authorities to provide assistance in planning for emergencies; coordinating provincial resources when emergencies occur and assists with the analysis and evaluation, post-emergency. Being part of Municipal Affairs will help strengthen the relationship with municipalities and our collective response to emergency needs. This realignment enables us to build stronger partnerships with the municipal emergency management staff and together we can help ensure the safety and security of all Nova Scotians.
EMO itself has 26 full-time staff with a total budget of $7.2 million. I want to identify two areas within EMO where there are budgetary structures. EMO is responsible for Nova Scotia's 911 system. The 911 system was originally constructed as a user-pay model and is completely funded by a levy on every telephone line in Nova Scotia. Each of us pays 43 cents for every phone line that we own. Introduced in 1997 our funding and governance model for the delivery of the 911 service has been replicated in the rest of Atlantic Canada. In the fiscal year 2012-13 the monthly fee generated $5.7 million in gross revenue.
Over the years this revenue source has been sufficient to pay for all aspects of the 911 service: its operation, its maintenance and periodic technical renewals. The 911 call-takers play a critical role in protecting the health, safety and property of Nova Scotians. These dedicated individuals provide a vital link to emergency services. I can speak first hand, having spent 32 years in policing, on the value of the front-line administrative staff, whether they are answering the phone or whether they're greeting a citizen at the counter, how important that first contact is in mitigating the stress and anxiety of those experiencing emergency situations.
There are 180 911 call-takers who receive 650 calls per day. The 911 is for police, fire or medical emergencies, when help is needed immediately. Our department works very closely with all emergency response agencies to help ensure that Nova Scotians get help as quickly as possible. Along with the 911 initiative program, there are other key program areas that include: Emergency Management, Mitigation, Preparation, Response and Recovery and the Disaster Financial Assistance Program.
Within EMO they have an extensive training program. EMO collaborates with our municipal partners in Emergency Management Offices around the province in the design and implementation of training programs. EMO conducts emergency management training for various stakeholders and in 2013 alone there were approximately 25 training sessions every two weeks, where there were 778 participants. We want to ensure that we're addressing the training needs for our municipal management partners. That is a provincial responsibility. In my view and experience, having EMO under the Department of Municipal Affairs will help strengthen this collaboration. As we all know we've had a rough, long winter and it may well be considered one of our most challenging winters in recent memory.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the staff from EMO and 911 for their work, their relationship with first responders and the support and the assistance that they extend to Nova Scotians from one end of the province to the other. I can speak firsthand, with my experience in policing, on the value of the people who make that experience personal and provide a level of comfort for those individuals who are calling 911 for emergency needs.
EMO staff are quick to recognize there are other government departments, including Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Community Services, Justice, Health and Wellness, police and fire services, and multiple community organizations that complement and enhance our provincial emergency management and response. To all our partners, municipal emergency management coordinators, the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Red Cross, Nova Scotia Power Inc., Bell Aliant and other critical infrastructure partners, I want to publicly take this opportunity to thank them for their efforts and their contributions to the public safety of all Nova Scotians.
As I mentioned earlier one of EMO's key responsibilities is to help communities recover from emergency events. EMO administers the federal-provincial Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program on the province's behalf. These are critically important programs that help Nova Scotians who experience damage and storms and disasters to recover and get back on their feet. This could be the loss of a primary residence, the damage to a business, or damage to infrastructure such as bridges and roads. These needs, Madam Chairman, are always acute and through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program, the province and the federal government have been there to help. Since 1999 EMO has administered programs totalling $111 million and recovered over $50 million in disaster funding from the federal government.
We are currently in the process of closing seven open disaster files and recovering an additional $12 million. They range from the 2008 Labour Day flood to the September 2012 floods, with a number of disasters and floods in between. You can see, Madam Chairman, these are not immediate resolutions; they take time, through that process, in order to recover funds and ensure that communities are back on their feet.
In 2013-14 two disaster programs were finalized and financial recoveries secured. Over $19 million in disaster financial assistance was provided by the federal government for both Juan and White Juan in 2003 and 2004, so here we are 10 years later just resolving those particular challenges
There is no question that EMO is a leader in emergency planning and response and I'm very pleased that EMO is now part of the Department of Municipal Affairs. I've had the privilege of working with many of the staff and employees in EMO, from their leadership down through their various levels of management to the front-line service providers. It's no secret, to the credit of previous governments, that the emergency management program in Nova Scotia is seen to be a leader and really second only to British Columbia. The reason for that is they have the high elevation recovery systems that we don't have in Nova Scotia, so we're on par with British Columbia and that's a credit to past governments and to the people and employees within EMO.
In 2014-15 we will work with the federal government and Department of Finance and Treasury Board on a new municipal infrastructure program called the Building Canada Fund. Madam Chairman, there are two components to the program, one for communities under 100,000 and a program that will fund eligible projects for HRM and large projects for all municipalities. The details of the new Building Canada Fund are still being confirmed and staff within our department will communicate the details as soon as they are finalized.
I know I can speak, having had recent discussions with staff, that they have reached out to municipalities and they have suggested and encouraged municipalities to prepare so they are ready when the small community application process begins. As soon as we have that information we'll certainly make that available to all members of the House and post that on our website for the information of the public.
We expect to sign a new federal gas tax agreement as well, very soon, and we work in collaboration with the UNSM to ensure efficient delivery of the program to all of our municipalities. The gas tax agreement, as we speak, is awaiting federal signage, obviously followed by my signature and we're hoping that there will be an announcement forthcoming.
As part of the new funding agreement we will work with the UNSM to develop a model for capital asset management planning. This model will support informed decision making by municipal councils with respect to infrastructure maintenance, rehabilitation, replacement and expansion. That's an important piece and a new piece. Capital asset management obviously will be a critical piece of the planning stages, going forward.
The Office of the Fire Marshal, as I indicated earlier, new to the Department of Municipal Affairs, operates under the authority of the Fire Safety Act and is responsible for the provision of fire safety in buildings and safe storage of flammable and combustible materials across the province.
For 2014-15 the Fire Marshal's Office has been allocated two full-time equivalent positions and an additional $870,000. Madam Chairman, the new positions are for Municipal Regulatory Oversight, Compliance and Inspection Management, and Program Administration at the municipal level. They will help the office address recommendations from a recent Auditor General's Report.
The Fire Marshal's Office has made significant progress on most of the recommendations and 40 per cent of the recommendations have been completed with varying stages of progress in each and every one of the other recommendations.
In closing, Madam Chairman, let me say that since being appointed minister I've been impressed by the professionalism and the dedication of the staff in Municipal Affairs. I can tell you over the past number of months it has been extremely busy and staff have stepped up to the plate and I think I can relay one particular example that demonstrates the commitment and the dedication of staff.
We were travelling to a point in the Valley and upon return to Halifax late one night, in the area of 10 o'clock, one of our communications staff indicated that she was going home. It was her son's 15th birthday. I thought about that and said to myself - significant commitment and dedication. Those circumstances aren't lost and that's in service to Nova Scotians. So with that Madam Chairman, I will conclude my remarks and it is certainly my pleasure to answer any questions specific to the Budget Estimates for the Department of Municipal Affairs.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Hants West.
MR. CHUCK PORTER: Welcome minister and your staff, happy to have you here this afternoon for some questions and I'm sure there will be some good debates, some answers on the estimates, discuss some of the ongoing issues. It will be no surprise to you what I wish to talk about I'm sure and I know you are very well involved in what's going on with the municipal units. The issues of - did I say you again Madam Chairman? I see you shaking your head.
It's very difficult in this House not to have a conversation and use that word and I want to make this point because I am probably going to get caught on it again. I can see this word "you" being an issue when we're talking with some disrespect perhaps or what have you. Certainly it is not directed that way so if I do say "you" to you, Madam Chairman, or to the minister, I do not mean any disrespect in any way, shape, or form. It is something that we use every day in this House and in our conversations and in plain English so I will get caught on that I'm sure and I will apologize to you now and to the minister, but it will happen, no doubt.
Carrying on, I want to talk about Hantsport and the recent issues that have transpired there around what was a very good town hall meeting, well attended at the school in Hantsport a couple of weeks ago, two weeks ago yesterday I believe, and then a week ago last evening council met and had a vote, as the minister is aware, to dissolve. There were some pretty mixed feelings, a very emotional meeting, as I'm sure the minister and others will understand, the evening in Hantsport. I did attend, made a few comments, mostly it was around commending that municipal unit for bringing the public together that they represent, before the lights actually went out, while there still might be something there to offer and negotiate with.
There were a lot of different opinions that night about which way they should go - raising taxes to maintain what they have. I'm sure, regardless of Springhill or Bridgetown and others that are yet to come - and I'm sure there will be more because you need only look at the statistics that represent small town Nova Scotia, there are a lot of similarities. High tax rates, it is very difficult to raise that tax rate and unfortunately there is only one source of revenue in those areas and they also know, legally, they are not allowed to have deficit budgets so it makes it very, very difficult to maintain what they have, let alone trying to do anything more.
The town that I live in, Windsor, is no exception to that, and we'll get on to some discussion about that as well, but I am curious - I wonder if the minister would enlighten us, first of all because I think there are a lot of questions a lot of people have - even some councillors around the province - don't really understand that whole process around amalgamation versus dissolution and how the two differ.
There was some explanation by Mayor Robbie Zwicker that night in Hantsport. He tried to separate what that might mean but I'm still not sure that people totally understood it. For the record today I wouldn't mind hearing the minister offer some comments, really spelling out the true differences and along with that - and take the time that you need minister - what is that process now by way of Hantsport? What does that mean? Where are they going? What does dissolution mean?
They understand there is an opportunity to negotiate now with a municipal unit, which could obviously be the Municipality of Kings County, could be the Municipality of West Hants, and some even understand it could be the Town of Windsor, given that they are a nearby municipal unit. So just looking for the real clarity around that so when I'm out there and I am being asked, as I am sure you are asked on a regular basis, what a lot of this does represent, we want to have the right answers to provide. That's the first question, and maybe we'll let you go with that first and come back.
MR. FUREY: We have had the opportunity to have a number of discussions, privately, on the process and how it unfolds in Windsor and I would certainly be pleased to share the two points that my colleague identifies, the difference between dissolution and amalgamation, and the second piece being that process of dissolution.
I think there were some comments specific to both the dissolution and amalgamation. There are a number of contributing factors that I believe have moved us to where we are and will move us, going forward. The recent Ivany report has set the stage for good discussion and those circumstances have allowed municipal leaders to take a sober second thought on the challenges that they are facing and the opportunities, Madam Chairman, that I believe are before them.
In my travels and in my discussions around now 38 municipalities, and I don't pretend to communicate that we've always agreed, but I can tell you that we've had very honest, very frank, very straightforward discussions that I believe have given our municipal leaders and their senior staff confidence to know that the provincial government is there to support them and that the process will support them, going forward.
I'll speak briefly to the dissolution process. The Municipal Government Act obviously allows for dissolution. It's a discussion of municipal council, it's not a decision of the provincial government. The role of the provincial government and the role of our department to this point has been a supportive role to provide the information, the processes, and the interpretation of legislation that allow municipal leaders and their councils to make those decisions and in the case of dissolution, as has been the case in Hantsport - and I'll use Hantsport as the example - I personally met with the mayor and council on two occasions preceding their public meeting process, along with senior staff in the department, and we made available to each of the communities, Springhill, Bridgetown, and Hantsport, the full access to staff within Service Nova Scotia. That includes senior policy people, that includes our communications team, that includes our legal support through the Department of Justice, to ensure that they are most informed of their own circumstances, and I referred earlier to the Financial Condition Index and the Debt Affordability Model.
There were, I believe Madam Chairman, valuable tools in providing information to our municipal leaders and senior staff that clearly articulate the financial challenges that they are facing, going forward, and those are contributing factors in a council's decision and ability to hold public meetings, to share that information so that the public is engaged and understands those challenges, recognizing that there will be differences of opinion and certainly emotions in some of those decisions.
I know that particularly the Town of Windsor, it was a very emotional experience for the deputy mayor to speak at that meeting because he is a Hantsport resident and will continue to be a Hantsport resident. When I talk about the dissolution process or the amalgamation process, quite often identity of community and that continued identity is the topic of discussion, and a fear that communities will lose their identity.
I use the Queens County model as the example in responding to those comments, Madam Chairman, and responding to those questions. The region of Queens and the Town of Liverpool consolidated government model 16 years ago. At the time they pursued that model of regional government, there was strong leadership and tough decisions. I believe our municipal leaders and their councils and senior staff today possess the same skills to make those tough decisions. In the dissolution process each of Springhill, Hantsport and Bridgetown have demonstrated that leadership, but in the example of the Queens Region, when that dissolution process or amalgamation took place, there was a fear, even then, of town and county.
Under the guidance and leadership of Mr. John Leefe, who is presently the transition coordinator for the Springhill dissolution, he led, as did others within his team, a realignment of districts so that the former Town of Liverpool was not isolated from the region of Queens. That realignment of districts created three new districts where there were components of the former town and the municipality in a new district and a new municipal councillor to represent the interests of both former residents of the Town of Liverpool and the Region of Queens.
I speak to that example in every discussion I've had with our municipal leaders to this point, I'll speak to those circumstances in my discussions with the remaining municipal leaders, and the staff, our municipal advisors and senior administrators in communications are using the same examples to support municipalities in these endeavours.
It was interesting, Madam Chairman, six weeks ago I had the opportunity to travel to Queens for the opening of the Canadian Junior Curling Championships. Liverpool was quite proud to host that event in their new Emera Centre, a brand new hockey ice surface facility with a number of other community components. I had the privilege to participate in the opening ceremonies and I was impressed, in speaking with the organizers, over 250 volunteers from the Region of Queens, from the former Town of Liverpool and the Municipality of Queens, 250 volunteers who came out to support their community, their identity.
That following weekend I watched both the women's and the men's championship games, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon on TSN, the national TSN channel - four hours of national coverage of the two events, back-to-back, Saturday and Sunday. The commentators for TSN could not say enough in their comments and their coverage of the event and the community and the hospitality and how often - I lost count, Madam Chairman, of the number of times they talked about the Town of Liverpool. This is 16 years later and they still call it the Town of Liverpool.
Madam Chairman, it is also interesting when we talk about the circumstances of the Queens Region, Liverpool model. In 1996 when that took place, the tax rate in the Town of Liverpool decreased in the area of 40 cents and to this day, 16 years forward, the town is still 22 cents below the tax rate of 1996, the former town in the region.
I use that as an example of the opportunities and the challenge for our municipal leaders, and the challenge for us in government, to provide support and models of governance that are in the best interests of the broader community and to demonstrate that individual communities who pursue a model of governance different from the present do not lose their identity but in fact their identity is reinforced.
I've talked to residents in Springhill, in Bridgetown, in Hantsport and a number of other communities that we are having discussions with, and they still consider their home Springhill; they still consider their home Bridgetown and they still consider their home Hantsport. The dissolution process, although some may try to make it complicated, it's challenging; it challenges us individually to be visionaries, to think outside the box and to find solutions not in a selfish way but in the best interest of the broader community. I think these are the examples we're seeing and I have the utmost confidence in the leadership in those communities.
Now that the Town of Hantsport - I'll continue to use Hantsport as the example - now that they have made the decision to dissolve, and you've seen two or three public meetings that the town hosted and participated in and engaged their population and their residents and they informed their residents. There were varying degrees of support and varying opinions but at the end of the evening we recognized, as do the residents of the Town of Hantsport, that a duly elected municipal government body made the decision that the residents elected them to make. They knew in assuming those roles there would be times where they would have to make tough decisions. The elected council of the Town of Hantsport, charged with those duties, were able to demonstrate the leadership, the strength and the sensitivities to their community in moving forward.
Now that they've made that decision, the process allows for an application, what we call an uncontested application, because part of this process engages the municipalities, in this case the unique set of circumstances where the opportunity to consider one of two municipalities remains very real for the Town of Hantsport. In engaging their partners, I know that the mayor has reached out to both wardens in the Municipality of Kings and the District of West Hants and they continue with those discussions to this day. Ultimately, in their application, the effort is to pursue what we call an uncontested application so that when that application is made to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board, there is already an agreement that there is a consolidation of governments.
Leading up to that there is a role of the transition coordinator and I'll use Springhill as an example because it is a set of circumstances that are quite public and the process is certainly public. The Transition Coordinator, Mr. John Leefe, is charged with the responsibility to engage both representation from the Town of Springhill and the Municipality of Cumberland. There is equal representation on the Transition Committee and that Transition Committee will negotiate the components of that application to the Utility and Review Board. When that application is made, there are already significant agreements, specific to the application submitted to the Utility and Review Board.
Obviously, the province is part of those discussions with the transition coordinator and each of the municipalities involved. The Utility and Review Board, upon receipt of that application, apply a process and one of the components of that is additional community consultation. The objective of the Utility and Review Board is to come to a finding where neither of the two communities are disadvantaged. The fact that these municipal bodies today are able to come together and present an uncontested application certainly demonstrates to the Utility and Review Board the due diligence, the good faith and the opportunity to move forward with another model of government. That in itself is a Reader's Digest version of the dissolution process.
The amalgamation process would be a different process, once again guided by the Municipal Government Act and existing legislation. The amalgamation process would be two towns or two neighbouring communities repealing their status as different identities and creating a new model of government under another name.
I'll use Queens County as the example again. Important to the Queens example is the extensive community consultation that Mr. Leefe facilitated along with his transition team at that time in moving the interests and concerns of those individual communities forward to the point that they found an agreement and were able to work towards and secure another model of government.
So the amalgamation process is slightly different from the dissolution process, but many of the components remain the same. I trust that may address some of the content of my colleague's questions. I am certainly prepared to expand further.
MR. PORTER: Yes, that certainly outlined that in decent detail. For the record, that will be useful because I think that there are a number of people who really don't understand the process. The final outcome may look the same, it may feel the same, but there is a slight difference whereby we are not looking to rename our area the District of the Municipality of West Hants - or at least that's not been what I have heard. I think that sometimes has been maybe part of the opposition to that word "amalgamation" that some people do understand. They don't want a new name.
For Queens County, yes, it made a lot of sense. You took in a number of communities. Queens County is a great example. John Leefe is a great example. John Leefe has done a fine job in that area and others, and I'm confident will do a fine job in Springhill. They should benefit hugely from his experience. I'm sure there were lessons learned - as a matter of fact, I know that there were lessons learned in the Queens County coming together, that model.
Mr. Leefe was in Windsor about 12 or 13 months ago now, put a presentation on for the chamber of commerce one evening. He certainly wasn't saying, you should do this or you should do that. It was, here's what we did. It was a fine example of how they came together. I think it got a lot of people thinking about the process outside of maybe some that would have thought about it. Some often have looked at it where I come from as, oh, we don't want to do that.
I think that with all the discussion and all of the issues that have gone on in the past year or two or three now, not only around tax rates and things, but other issues - fire department issues that I'm sure you're well aware have been debated between our Municipality of West Hants and the fire service and, to some degree, the Town of Windsor.
People have grown weary. They've grown tired of it. They expect their municipal leaders - and they are indeed that - to come together and to find a resolve that works for everyone. I'm confident that they will do that because we have some very good people. We have been fortunate over the years to have some very good people who put their name on the ballot who have run for councils in towns and in the municipal units all over the province - not just in my area, but province-wide. I'm sure you've gotten to meet quite a few of them - as you've said, you've been in 36 now - and you'll meet more.
Yes, I would say that you have certainly clarified the difference in the dissolution versus the amalgamation piece. Maybe one piece you didn't touch on, but I could just ask again: the dissolution piece and negotiation that now would be underway - and we can continue to use Springhill if you like, because that is public and they have moved towards that, the transition coordinator has been in place. This question has been posed to me: if they are unable to come to an agreement, what is the step then? Do they revert back to the Town of Springhill and carry on until they come up with something else, or do they move into some other kind of option?
MR. FUREY: They told me when I came in here that I had to worry about gaining weight. I can't understand why my pants are falling down.
Thank you, Madam Chairman. I thank my colleague for the question. It's a good question, because it comes up in each of the discussions that I've participated in in my municipal travels. The uncontested application that I spoke to reaches a point where both of those partners agree to the application submitted to the URB. The URB would still hear evidence specific to the circumstances of both communities.
If there was a contested application, it's still an application to the URB, where the URB would continue to hear evidence and would make a decision specific to the application itself. So the URB, at that point, plays a very important role in the process.
MR. PORTER: For clarity - I think the uncontested is obvious. It seems pretty smooth and seamless. It probably goes through, and coming to the URB, with the hearing, they probably say, this looks good, everybody's happy, and it probably grants that without too much exception.
The contested, though, that you speak of - are we referring to one of the two parties at the table contesting, just for clarity? Or are we referring to a third party, like the public or someone, another group contesting? I just want to get that on the record as well, if you would clarify it, please.
MR. FUREY: The contested, still going before the URB, other stakeholders would have the opportunity for input at the URB in that process of gathering evidence and making determinations.
MR. PORTER: Thanks, minister, for the clarification on that. I just wanted, for the record again, to be clear. Those questions will be asked and have sort of started to come out as this has evolved, and I appreciate that.
I should also mention that I do appreciate being kept up to speed by yourself as well over the last while on where things have been here. I have certainly offered to Mayor Zwicker and his council and others that whatever the role is, if there's something that I can do, whether it's working with you or whomever, I'm certainly happy to be involved in that, and they're appreciative of that.
I want to move to the Town of Windsor now, which is also a unit that has been having some issues. I would say they're probably no better off. I stand to be corrected, but when you talk to people about tax rates and the potential of them going up, they've struggled as well. I sat on that council a number of years ago prior to being elected provincially, and I remember the director of finance at that time talking about that debt ratio and showing you the charts and saying, we should stop here. And here we are many years later, and I'd be curious to look at that chart now. I'm sure it has not gone the way that he wished it to go. It's going the wrong way. That creates a problem.
Windsor's no different than any other small town. They're struggling with infrastructure stuff. Things have to be done. Water lines have to be replaced. Streets have to be paved, sidewalks and so on. The money has to come from somewhere, and of course that moves to higher taxes. Town council might want to argue with me and say that tax rates have gone down. I would argue with them that perhaps the initial tax rate has gone down, but assessments have gone up, a sewer rate has been put on in place of others. I mean, having sat there, I know we're paying more, not less. I think probably most people understand that overall as residents, we're probably paying more in small towns - and understandably so. There are things that must be maintained.
I know that there has been correspondence with your office prior to you becoming minister and certainly after becoming minister. I'm pretty sure you've met with them as well. I'm curious as to what it is exactly, the status by way of the request that they have put to you as minister and your office. Where are we? Are they looking at the dissolution opportunity as well? I know they've talked amalgamation. Mayor Paul Beazley talks about the "A" word. He almost doesn't say "amalgamation" anymore, he continues to use the "A" word for whatever reason. I think probably if people understood the difference that you just explained a few minutes ago, minister, as to what the two different pieces mean by way of dissolution versus amalgamation, they may also have a better understanding of that "A" word itself and the more global piece to this.
I'm curious as to where the Town of Windsor might be heading. Again, for the record, I have the opportunity as well of talking to them, but I think it's important for our residents to understand from the minister himself and the province exactly where we're at, especially given what some might call an opportunity, and we may as well agree is an opportunity with Hantsport now in that position, if Windsor were looking at something. Is there an opportunity here to form a really strong regional body in and around the area that I have the honour of representing?
MR. FUREY: Madam Chairman, thank you again to my colleague for the question. I just want to take a moment to respond to your kind gestures. I honestly believe that if we're going to accomplish success and progress at the municipal level and its impact on our economic future, we have to do that together.
I think Ray Ivany's report says it best. I know people have claimed to support the Ivany report and everybody claims to endorse the Ivany report. Quite honestly, people are picking and choosing from the Ivany report what they believe is politically correct, if I may say that.
There's a piece in the Ivany report that I want to speak to, and I'll table that for the record. They're talking about the future and the vision of the Province of Nova Scotia and it states specifically, ". . . willing to pursue it through dialogue, cooperation and collaboration rather than isolation, competition and conflict." I think that's a critical statement within the Ivany report that I don't recall others using to this point.
For those who know me, I'm an optimist and not a pessimist. I don't dwell on the negative. There's good in everything, I believe that. I think it's important that we, together, are able to move that type of principle going forward. I want to acknowledge that the discussions that the member and I have had specific to Hantsport, and the opportunities in West Hants, certainly demonstrate that. I will continue to commit to those relationships as we move forward.
Some have challenged me on including other elected officials in those intergovernmental meetings. Respectfully, I've addressed that with the stakeholders and I've responded to those individuals and how important that intergovernmental piece is to government to be able to communicate the support that we, as government, can provide in moving the decisions of those municipal governments forward.
To that point, I think it's important to recognize that there's a time where there are intergovernmental meetings where I wouldn't be able to include the member but, at the first opportunity, am certainly prepared to update the member and continue to keep the member updated in that process and in those discussions.
I do want to table that because I think it's a critical statement to have on the record. I would encourage all my colleagues on both sides of the House, moving forward, to continue to keep this piece of the Ivany report in mind, whether we're talking municipal governance, whether we're talking economic development, how important it is that we be serious and genuine about our efforts to really make Nova Scotia a better place going forward.
Specifically to the Town of Windsor, as the member knows, I have met with the mayor and council in the Town of Windsor. The mayor and council have publicly indicated that they've provided me correspondence requesting a second meeting. I know that meeting, I believe, has been scheduled; I just don't have the date with me. I do want to say for public record how much I respect the confidentiality of those discussions while we're working through the process. It's not for me as the minister and not for anyone within the department to disclose the content of those discussions respecting that governing body and the confidentiality of those discussions and how important it is for them to give thought to those discussions and allowing them to make informed decisions going forward.
I don't want to breach that confidentiality of those discussions, but will commit to my colleague that I will confirm the date of the second meeting with my colleague. Certainly at the first opportunity following that meeting, I will bring my colleague up to date specific to the town. My colleague did mention in a larger piece West Hants and a regional governance model. I've also met with the Municipality of West Hants with the warden and council and senior staff and again, very productive, very informative discussions that I believe are valuable. Through this process with Hantsport, know that both I and the staff will engage the municipal leaders in West Hants through this process to ensure that each and every party is informed, each and every party has the information they need to make these very critical decisions.
MR. PORTER: Thank you to the minister for those answers. My point was exactly that - with regard to Windsor, the confidentiality that must remain until such point as they decide what's public.
More importantly, just the fact that there are conversations going on is what I wanted to get out there, that there are conversations that are taking place with the province, because people are asking - are they doing anything? I think it's important for people to know there are some discussions, that there has been correspondence, some of which has been public, as you would also know, in recent past articles in at least the local paper, the Hants Journal, and probably the provincial paper as well with regard to Windsor's position on some things.
I do very much appreciate your comments around that. As far as Ray Ivany goes, we had the pleasure of having him down our way last year for a meeting and really talking positively about what could be. The report that has come out certainly defines exactly that and we support that as nothing unusual in this House, we've made that very clear, that this caucus, and myself personally, we do. There are a lot of good pieces to that report that I hope something can happen.
As far as relationships and things go in this House and debates - and anyone that has been here a while would also know my feelings on that. I've made it clear many times and have said if you took the politics out of this Chamber, Nova Scotians would benefit hugely across the province. Unfortunately, it continues to seem to be the way that we go and it plays a role. I'm not much of a partisan - I've said that publicly before as well. It's about working for all Nova Scotians, not one political stripe or the other. We encourage people not necessarily to get involved in political Parties, but to go out to vote, support those who have made that right available to us in this province and in this country.
I'll stand by that, I'll say that many times as I go through the years here probably as well. That has nothing to do with being a PC member or a Liberal member or anything in this House. I think that most members probably do feel that way, at least I'd like to think that they do.
Maybe one final question on the dissolution piece. Now that the process has started and regardless of where it is, a transition coordinator has been appointed by way of Mr. Leefe in Springhill; one will, I assume, be appointed down in Hantsport for that municipal unit as they move forward with negotiations.
One of the questions that has come up - and I think it may have been discussed between your meetings with the council in Hantsport. I don't know; I didn't ask Mayor Zwicker, but he may have alluded to it the evening of the Hantsport meeting at the school. I know that there was a representative from your department there who I don't think spoke that evening - I'm pretty sure that he didn't.
But it is around funding. What is set aside for this transition to happen? Is there a figure assorted with that, or is it what it takes within a reasonable limit? Again, I don't want to make it sound like there is a million dollars or something there, but is there a figure that is set aside that says we are there? The minister alluded to, in his opening comments, available resources, but is there a figure that's there that says, look, this is really what we have to deal with? I'm sure that probably varies on the situation, but I would like to just hear a few comments on that if you can.
MR. FUREY: I want to take the opportunity to speak to my colleague's comments around relationships in the Chamber. I've talked to a number of us in the Chamber on both sides of the House. I remind people that I spent 32 years in policing and also remind them that there is nothing you can say to me that hasn't been said before and there is nothing you call me that I haven't been called before. So I recognize that personalities can be tested and challenged and how important it is really to remember where we are.
The appointment of the transition coordinator - and I'm glad the member mentioned this because it is a piece that I neglected to elaborate on earlier in my comments - and I'll use Springhill as the example and recognize that it applies to both Bridgetown and Hantsport. In the program that we've designed around dissolution, recognizing the importance of the role of the transition coordinator, each of the stakeholders in the Springhill dissolution have standing in that we've asked that each of the province, the Town of Springhill and the Municipality of Cumberland identify an individual that they believe could fulfill that role.
In the circumstances of Bridgetown and Hantsport, the same guidelines apply. We've gone through that process in Bridgetown, we're early in that process with Hantsport, and we're quite confident that through that process where each of the stakeholders - the province, the municipality and the town - have the opportunity to advance a name, that we'll find the same agreement that we've experienced in Springhill. So to the member's questions around transition coordinator, the same process applies and will continue to apply in each and every dissolution that we will engage in going forward.
Specific to the funding, I'll be quite honest - there is no funding identified or allotted for any of these dissolutions. To qualify that, it would be premature to commit any amount of money without knowing what the agreements are and the conclusions and findings that they come to through the transition team itself. I'll use Springhill again as the example - there is a municipal police service there, there is obviously some town debt that has been a matter of public record. Those are discussions that the transition coordinator will lead. Collectively, the transition team will come to a position that they will present to government. Then at that time, we'll give that piece of the process due diligence, due attention, and provide what support, to the extent possible, that we're able to do.
MR. PORTER: I appreciate the answer, minister, as well. I guess that's what we were kind of curious about, how could you put a figure around anything that would probably - there would be a lot of similarities, I guess, through most small towns in Nova Scotia. Likely all of them would represent what you've just spoken to by way of issues and debt and policing. There would be some variables there, but they would be all reflective, so it would be difficult to put a figure.
I think what was more important, though, I think that - I'm not sure there's a clear understanding on - maybe the mayors and wardens and councillors whom you've met with do understand themselves, but the public may not, is the resources you mentioned in your opening statement again that were allocated to assist municipal units through this process.
I've even had a couple of people ask me about our debt. Is the province just going to assume that and pay that off? I'm thinking, that is highly unlikely to happen. You shouldn't be going down that road.
Part of this might be the negotiation that happens regardless of whether they go to West Hants or they go to Kings County. Tax rates would need to be set. There would be things put in place that would assure the debt to be paid down over the course of a certain amount of time, while at the same time holding a tax rate that was affordable and fair to those residents in Hantsport, in this example. That is a huge concern, I think, a lot of them are wondering and not understanding the process and wondering about what happens to our debt - how does that work?
It's hard to explain sometimes where people don't understand what a negotiation might really represent. They don't maybe understand fully what is taking place at the table. What are those discussions? There are so many pieces to that - the policing, the fire service, et cetera, taxes and all of the things you could possibly think of, everything - public works, all of those things, I'm sure debts that have been recently undertaken, infrastructure programs, gas taxes have probably got to play a role in there, whatever is allocated, there has to be probably any number of things.
I don't think that the average person really thinks about that because the emotional piece sort of steps in first. There have been many who would argue that a town like Hantsport has been very resilient. They have seen hard times in the past, over the last 100 years or so in their time, but something was different then, too. We were very fortunate in Hantsport to have many years ago the Jodrey family, who stepped in and helped build Hantsport, who created CKF and what is now known as Minas Basin Pulp and Power and now known as the Scotia Group of Companies.
I'm not sure that those days are anywhere in our near future again, so other options have to be looked at. I think that's fair to say, but it's very hard when you talk to some of the senior people who have been there and lived there their entire life, how they should accept that or not. You spoke of Deputy Mayor Harold Bulger and his difficulty on the night of a week ago, having to support that very motion to dissolve and lived there his entire life; a very emotional time for Mr. Bulger and for many others.
I guess we can only hope going forward that the negotiation that will take place will be a positive one, it will leave Hantsport with a feeling of support, if you will, and strength and some hope going forward - probably more hope than anything else the way things are in the current times. Indeed, that hope and the fact that they will be well represented into the future.
I think, as a segue into that, my understanding is that Mayor Robbie Zwicker will become the sole representative of what is now still Hantsport proper until the next municipal election, or I guess he steps aside and there's some sort of other thing that comes into place. Maybe just some clarification on that step so that people understand they still have someone from the area representing, you know, what their needs are and that will continue to be their needs and a place to go and ask their questions and share their comments and concerns. My understanding is that that would be the mayor of the Town of Hantsport at this time.
MR. FUREY: Again, I thank my colleague for the question. Specific to the role of the mayor going forward, obviously there's a need to continue with elected representation for the Town of Hantsport. That's a process facilitated and recognized within the URB that up until the next municipal election, there would be representation. In this case, the most senior official in the town, being the mayor, obviously fulfills that role. That would take it through to the next municipal election.
But part of that URB process would also include, as I indicated in the example of Queens, exploring the opportunities of the boundaries of new districts so that we mitigate the town-county challenges and create lines, as Queens did, that provide for effective multiple representatives for the former town.
MR PORTER: Thank you to the minister for that clarity. I appreciate that. There are questions around county lines, I guess. I don't know when the last time county lines or whatever changed. Some would say never in their lifetime, and that's probably true - none that I can remember. I tried to do a little research and couldn't find it, actually. But some people are concerned about Hantsport being a border town, if you will, that close, and the opportunity if they did move into Kings County. Would lines be redrawn to reflect that, as far as you're concerned? How would you see that working if that happened? That's a question, again, that has been raised to me, and I said I would do my best to assume an answer somehow.
MR. FUREY: Good question. We have had the discussion in the department given the unique circumstances of the Town of Hantsport bordering on Kings County and presently physically being part of West Hants. There's no recent case, as you've indicated, of the change to county boundaries. We've had a number of other boundary reviews, in education and provincial ridings, and I would commit to the member that we would explore what the options are. I'm sure there's a solution that would support the decision of Hantsport. We would certainly pursue the opportunity to support Hantsport in whatever decision they make. I'll commit to the member to explore his question and get back to him at the first opportunity.
MR. PORTER: I thought that one might be somewhat of a difficult answer, but it's interesting to actually even hear you say that there has been some discussion. I guess given that they are a border town, it has likely been prompted by someone. So yes, that could get interesting, there's no question. I would definitely say that, being selfish, I would hate to lose the good Town of Hantsport in my constituency, but at the same time, would appreciate 100 per cent that what's best for the residents of Hantsport is definitely the way to go. We would certainly accept that.
I have only a few minutes left - less than six minutes or so. I want to just move to one other topic off of this one and that is Access Nova Scotia locations. I am fortunate enough to have one located in the Town of Windsor, which I'm sure you're aware of. I've had many calls over the years. We're open Tuesday and Thursday for a few hours each day. Many would argue that is not enough time, it's not adequate.
I know it has only been six months or so, but have you had any time or been briefed on this issue - any consideration to reviewing and potentially expanding services? Even if it was just another day it would be of great help to the residents in my area.
I know that you're probably going to move to the piece where so much is available online these days, and I've heard all of that, as have they. Believe it or not, there are still a lot who do not use the online services, although many do, including myself. But there are a lot of - certain demographics, maybe more of our senior population, who don't or don't trust them, just with some of the identity thefts and things that have gone on. I know most of our sites are pretty secure by way of government-run sites. Things like last week - and we've been hearing in the news about the federal government having sites, our taxation issues and breaches there. It doesn't comfort people who are skeptical already.
We are a fairly big area, as I'm sure you're aware, and represent 20,000-plus residents and probably if you take in the outer areas, even moving into East Hants and a little bit of Lunenburg County, they would use the local service. I would just ask if there is some consideration for review and potential expansion, even if only a few more hours a week, out our way.
MR. FUREY: Recognizing the question from my colleague, actually, it's Service Nova Scotia. I will answer the question, but I don't want to neglect the representation of staff from Service Nova Scotia who are available in the latter period to be more specific to those matters that affect the Service Nova Scotia component of the department.
To the member's question, one of the things that I have talked about since coming into the department is a facilities strategy, which is a much larger discussion for the whole province. I'm very conscious of the points that the member identified in online access versus in-person access and the availability of that access. Those are parts of discussions I'm having. I'm very conscious of the demographics of the community, but also very conscious of the geography of our communities as well and how important rural Nova Scotia is to that strategy. Again, I will certainly commit to the member, as we continue those discussions around facilities and facility strategy, I will keep the member informed of those discussions and that progress.
MR. PORTER: Thank you to the minister for the answer. It's interesting, I was going to say a couple of weeks, but I guess it has been a number of weeks now I had my 16-year-old have to write her beginner's. Of course, we had to go to Kentville to do that. I was amazed at the beautiful site there - don't get me wrong - and maybe it was just the day of the month that we chose to be there, but how busy it wasn't. It was pretty quiet there overall - there were a few people coming and going, but not nearly as busy as I thought it might have been. I understand exactly what you're saying. There are some challenges probably both geographically and otherwise. I appreciate that.
It's hard to believe how quick an hour goes by here already, but we're just about done. I would just thank the minister for the answers to the questions today. Madam Chairman, that will be it for me and I guess we'll move on to our friends in the NDP.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid.
HON. DAVID WILSON: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I welcome the minister and his staff here for estimates. We're getting close to the end. They might say they saved the best for last, maybe, I don't know. I know by the look of the order paper that the minister and his department are busy with legislation - they're the busiest ones out there - but I think that has always been the case. They tend to bring forward changes often, which is a good thing and we look forward to going through some of that legislation.
I think what I'll do is continue on kind of - of course, the kind of big issue around the province now is with the challenges that our towns and villages have and the dissolution of those. I know we've talked about Springhill and there are other areas that are looking at potentially having to go that route, and it's unfortunate. I know there's a lot of pride in the small communities around the province and amalgamation isn't always an easy thing for not only the wardens and councillors and those elected, but the residents. Living here in Halifax and going through amalgamation in the 1990s, there are still a lot of people who don't speak highly of the amalgamation and are still looking for the benefits of amalgamation. There are some, but it's not an easy task, and I know that the men and women around the province who are elected to municipal council are facing some struggles.
I know the minister in some previous answers mentioned about - the department is there to support those communities that are going to make that decision. Has the minister had any discussion with his staff within the department on what expectations may be; in the next year, two years, three years, you might see a number of communities that make that decision? Are you trying to - and I know it's difficult - are you trying to predict, for example, how many communities this year might make the decision that we've seen in other communities, about amalgamating here in the province?
MR. FUREY: I thank my colleague for his comments and questions. I think one of the things I want to qualify - and I may not have spoken to it in as much detail as maybe I should have in my comments in the former discussion - there are a lot of conclusions that the dissolution process is driven by financial circumstances. Those are certainly contributing factors, but I think it's important to recognize as well that in the discussions I have had over the past number of months and will continue to have towards the summer, there are viable towns and municipalities who are openly talking about amalgamation.
To previous comments, the "A" word - I recall in the policing environment not that long ago that municipal leaders and senior staff would not speak the word. They always said, the "A" word. I can tell you, the tide has changed. Quite literally, every single discussion has included specifically amalgamation and put on the table by our municipal leaders and senior staff for open, honest, frank dialogue.
When I talk about productive, informative discussions, that's what I am speaking to. It's the desire of our municipal leaders to speak openly about not only the challenges that they face, but in fairness to our leaders, who I've come to know much better in this role than my previous role in policing, and I can tell you literally having worked from one end of the province to the other in my past profession, came to know municipal leaders and elected officials very well and personally. It's not uncommon to this day that I will sit and have coffee with a councillor, a mayor or a warden at any number of community events that I attend evenings and weekends.
They talk openly about amalgamation. It's not the toxic word that it used to be. It has generated some very good discussions and I wanted to take the opportunity to emphasize that these discussions are taking place amongst and within viable towns and municipalities. Just this past week, the mayor of the Town of Bridgewater openly spoke about pursuing discussions around amalgamation. Those are the types of discussions that we will certainly engage in. Those are the types of discussions that we will support in whatever capacity we can, either myself personally as the minister in reaching out and meeting with those communities again and into the future or staff who continue to travel the province and engage these municipalities, viable municipalities, in multiple discussions around their challenges and their future.
My colleague spoke about the expectations that we may have within the department. We're conscious of the possibilities, given the discussions that both myself and staff have participated in. We're very conscious of our capacity and our ability to manage these processes going forward. I can certainly share with my colleague that I've spoken to the Premier personally on these opportunities and what we may expect going forward.
Rest assured that with the commitment that I've previously referenced by staff, staff are committing tremendous time and energy, extended days and weekends in meeting and exceeding the expectations of our municipal leaders and our municipal governments as they further the discussions and as they pursue the dissolution process or whatever other process model that they choose to.
Specifically to the member's question, I wouldn't want to speculate on the numbers specific to expectations. Rest assured, we're conscious of that in the department and certainly prepared to respond as we move forward. Again, without breaching the confidentiality of those discussions that we're having, the municipal landscape going forward I think is in for change. As I've indicated in the past, both myself and the department staff are prepared to support our municipal colleagues as we move forward with whatever process they choose to pursue.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: I would like to ask the minister a question that relates to several different departments. I need a bit of advice from him to see if there is any support in going forward, because it's an issue that is widespread throughout the province and municipalities are trying to tackle it in a different manner. That's with respect to signage, and I do know that there is a role to play with Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.
The issue that I'm dealing with within my constituency would be the Municipality of the District of Chester. The municipal councillors have come together and they're working very hard to try to make some changes in terms of the signs that we have spattered throughout our community and especially at the exits. I'm sure the minister has come off of Exits 6 and 7 and has seen this array of signs of every different size and colour that the businesses are trying to outdo each other, of course, in promoting themselves.
I've always noticed when I've travelled to Prince Edward Island how it's such a beautiful province and you get this sense of cleanliness when you go on the island. One time when I was travelling, it kind of hit me - it's because of the uniformity of their signs, that if you have a business you just can't set up a sign, a 10 x 10 anywhere, or put multicoloured signs - that there is a process and procedure that it goes through to ensure that the businesses are listed underneath their signs that are provincially created signs.
I know I've heard it for many years, even years ago when I worked in the tourism business, that there were often discussions in communities of what can we do, because it does create a kind of garbage-looking look when you're coming into communities. The minister could tell me if he is able to help with this issue in terms of discussions with Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal because it is municipally based.
I think that for the Municipality of the District of Chester, it has taken a lot of courage to go forward because they've done a lot of consultations with business to reassure them that they want to go with a uniform sign and it's just human nature to think, well, that's not going to promote my business in the manner that I want because I have specific logos and colours. So they've worked very hard to educate the business community on the value of trying to clean up, especially in the - I think their first focus is on the exit areas, to slowly bring this in.
They did write to the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and he said that certainly - he gave permission that the signs could be removed, but the way that the legislation reads, they can't replace the signs. So they're caught in a catch-22. They could go out tomorrow if they want, as a municipality, and take down the signs, but they do not have any power to put signs back up. What they want to do is put these uniform Chester Municipality signs up.
I'm just wondering how that crosses over in the minister's department because it is something that the municipality has taken an initiative on. The province would never go into a community and talk to the businesses and say we're going to clean up your signs, so it is something that we would expect our municipal representatives to take on as a project, which they have. But yet they're kind of tied with the way our regulations do not permit them to put back signs that are actual municipal signs that have the businesses listed under that. So I'm just wondering if the minister could give me his opinion and viewpoint and if we can get together with maybe the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal - that's one of those regulations that does not make sense and in reality doesn't work.
MR. FUREY: Just a couple of pieces I think are appropriate in response to my colleague's questions. Again, I want to use the Queens County example. My colleague speaks to her travels to P.E.I. and the absence of those signs and how well it presents the greenscape and the landscape of P.E.I. I know my colleague would have had the opportunity, in the past and into the future, to travel through Queens County and one of things that Queens County did 16 years ago was go to a template for their signage throughout the region of Queens. They use the same template and the name of the community obviously changes.
It is a priority in the region of Queens to ensure that the identity of their communities, through signage, is maintained and whether you are in Caledonia, in Northfield, Westfield, or Buckfield, coming into the community you know where you are and it is the presence of that consistent template that gives residents ownership and a sense of pride as they travel to and from their community. For me, living in Lunenburg County, travelling through Queens up along the Medway River and other areas, it is a very relaxing drive to experience the identity of those communities, the pride of those residents within their communities and the absence of the signage that my colleague speaks to. I think there is a great opportunity and a great example of consistency and policy, municipal bylaws, that really speaks well and presents the community well.
Specific to the legislation, I too acknowledge, as my colleague has, that this is a responsibility of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. I do want to say that I recognize the issue and the concern that my colleague has presented and I would commit to discussions with my colleague in Cabinet, the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, and discussions that would be appropriate, and certainly include my colleague in those discussions for purposes of better understanding and authority and the strength of municipal bylaws versus provincial legislation.
We see our provincial signage. I know when I exit at exit 12 I see an array of provincial signage that appropriately reflects, in a reasonably professional manner, the location and direction of businesses in the community. I think that is the objective that my colleague is probably speaking to at the municipal level. I would commit to those discussions with the minister.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: I know it has taken many years for the Municipality of the District of Chester to even get to this point because there is so much sensitivity around the business community and their ability to promote their business. I would like to thank the minister very much for his commitment to sit down with me and the Minister of TIR in order to see if there is something that can be done because I think it is key if we have municipalities that will take these projects upon themselves, which have a little contention around it. Whatever we can do to open the door to help them I think is very important, so I thank the minister for that.
My questions sort of jump around all different areas and I want to talk to the minister about getting more information from him in terms of how the fees and registrations are set up under Municipal Services. My understanding is that governments always try to make them as a cost recovery base to ensure that whatever fees you are charging for registration, marriage certificates, et cetera, when you are looking at those, the key element is that it brings back enough income to pay for that service. Or does it go beyond that in the budget and mean that there might be a bit of profit from that, a little bit of surplus in the budget, or does it even out so that whatever those fees are for that particular service that you are paying for is truly reflective in what it costs for government to provide that service?
MR. FUREY: I'll do my best to answer my colleague's question. When fees are applied, the intention is cost recovery so that the program doesn't cost more than the revenues generated. If there are surplus revenues in these circumstances, surplus revenues would go towards costs associated to roads in the RMV piece.
I don't know if that answers my colleague's questions but certainly we'd be prepared to drill down further into the multiple services that are provided and the fees associated to those services and a more complete picture for my colleague because it is complex, given the sheer number of fees that are present within Service Nova Scotia and certainly collected through Nova Scotia. So the opportunity to drill down further and provide a greater, more detailed response to my colleague would be appropriate.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you very much to the minister. I'm just wondering if the minister has - I know it's complicated and there's a lot so we'll be patient back and forth with each other in the questioning and answering.
Are there categories that the department utilizes under the fee structure? I know we can put it under the Registry of Motor Vehicles and okay, we have X-number of services there that have a fee component, versus under whatever category it may be for marriage certificates and things of that nature. Are they in categories - to try to understand it better and, if so, how many categories would there be?
MR. FUREY: I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in that the questions my colleague is posing are Service Nova Scotia. I am supported by my Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs, but ably supported by Mary-Anne, our finance subject matter expert, who looks after both departments, so I'm at a little bit of a disadvantage in that my subject matter expertise on policy and strategy are in the gallery, but fortunate to have our finance subject matter expert here with me.
To my colleague's question, yes, things are categorized, and Page 2.5 and 2.6 of the Estimates Book lays out some of those services and fees and estimates of those revenues generated. It deals with Licences - Regulated Industries, Registration Services, Registry of Deeds, Certificates of Registration, and continues on Page 2.6 with Dealers' Licences and Plates, Drivers' Licences, Fines, those types of things. So yes, to my colleague's question, they are categorized and laid out in the Estimates Book on Page 2.5 and 2.6, and within each category, the anticipated or estimated revenues that would be generated in those categories.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you very much. I know they are in categories, so if we put them all together, how many are we talking about? Do you have a number that you can pull out? Do we have in the province 500 or 1,000 that we charge for, and that the goal is cost recovery?
MR. FUREY: I appreciate the question from my colleague, and the point that my colleague is making. There are over 600 fees, actually, that the department would administer, and all on the Department of Finance and Treasury Board website. We would be that service wing of government, but the Department of Finance and Treasury Board is obviously the banker. The intent of those fees is cost recovery and not intended to generate revenues.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate the minister's answer, because I know it's drilling down into the specific numbers, and it's not something that the minister deals with on a daily basis.
I'm wondering about the review process. I know there's a lot, when you're talking about 600 different fees, but I know, just going out on the doorsteps and talking to individuals that sometimes I come across constituents who have particular issues that are personal to them. I've heard things such as utility trailers and what they have to pay to license them, even the cost factor of licensing that and not utilizing it at the level that it sits in, in terms of what the charges are, if people only used those every once in a while, that kind of situation.
So I'm wondering what the review process is, because I know that one of the things that I quickly discovered, as Minister of Community Services, is that we have many very aged policies that maybe at the time were sufficient and were good when the decision was made, and over the years there are so many that have been created so I know - you're talking about 600 different types of fees.
Is there a review process that says okay, in year one we're going to review 50 different fee structures that we have and we're going to research them and get information from the public, just to make sure that those are current and they are effective and the fees that Nova Scotians are paying for, they are actually getting that service back?
MR. FUREY: To my colleague's question, as much as I want to answer her question, I'm really at a disadvantage here with my subject matter experts in the gallery. I originally intended to deal with Municipal Affairs and then move to Service Nova Scotia. I would certainly welcome the opportunity in our later time if I could then have the availability of staff in Service Nova Scotia and be more than willing to respond to my colleague's question.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you very much, I apologize, I actually did not know that I could not flip back and forth so I can hold onto those particular questions until that opportunity. Can I ask the chairman how much time I still have?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Your time will expire at 4:16 p.m.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you very much to the minister. Once again, sorry, I didn't mean to put him in that position because I didn't realize that was what the agreement was. I appreciate that I'll have that opportunity to drill into that a little bit more and just focus on the municipal aspect.
That's going to bring me to some of the conversation that you had earlier with my colleagues here in respect to municipal governments and amalgamation. I have to say that I do understand what the minister is talking about, how a number of years ago amalgamation was really seen as a bad word. In fact I was working for Halifax County when it amalgamated to become HRM. Ironically, that took place on April 1st, April Fools Day. All of us as employees were hoping that it actually was a joke. As we all know, it wasn't.
It was a very stressful and difficult situation for community members and also for employees. One of the things that occurred, there didn't seem to be any archiving of information and all the work that we had done over the years in Halifax County - it was suddenly here's where your office is. Those who were in management positions were let go and had to reapply. I still hear stories today, arguments as to whether that was even a cost saving.
One of the things that I thought would have been a great first step, rather than this overall amalgamation, was to look at amalgamating the service component. At the time I was working as a communications manager and we were doing a lot of work in terms of promotional materials and marketing materials and supporting the recreation department in the brochures they were printing. Of course the bit about Internet wasn't full-fledged at that time.
I often wondered, would it not have been a better process to have those conversations and identify where you could bring service levels together. For example, we knew that the Recreation Department for the City of Dartmouth, the City of Halifax and Halifax County were roughly doing their printing all at the same time for their programs, like a Spring program or Fall program, and couldn't we have coordinated the time of that to reduce the cost of the printer?
As we go forward and we see that municipalities are - many of them, their backs are up against the wall so they have to start liking the word "amalgamation" and "coming together". I just wanted the minister's opinion on what he feels about in terms of developing a strategy that can be offered to the municipalities as a support system, like a how-to plan, and maybe that is the first step that they take; and we take that leadership to provide them with that kind of device, so if he could give me his opinion and if he believes that kind of planning could be a good process to initiate.
MR. FUREY: I appreciate the question from my colleague, specific to existing shared services or expanding shared services. Given my recent travels around the province, I have had a tremendous opportunity to speak to towns and municipalities. To my colleague's question, I can't help but recall the discussions I had while we were in Yarmouth and how proud both the town and the municipality were in promoting their 29 shared services, and the discussions that they had with their colleagues because the other piece to this is the network within UNSM, Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, and how they share best practices and frequently meet to discuss the programs and initiatives that they are moving forward.
From a government perspective, certainly we continue to support shared services and that this is, and has been, a big part of our discussion as I travel the province. The outcomes are our efforts and initiatives on the part of those towns and municipalities to expand services. An additional outcome is a discussion of more formal joint service to the point that they are talking about another governance model - if we're going to go this far, why wouldn't we go the extra step.
To my colleague's question, a very valid point and certainly an observation that I'm making where our municipal leaders, including senior staff, are furthering the shared services component and I must say, doing a very good job in a number of communities across the province.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you to the minister, it's good to hear that he sees the value in that and it's excellent to also know that some of the municipalities have taken it upon themselves to go forward with the aspect of shared services. I think that it is something that municipalities need to explore and be open to explore.
We know that there are a lot of pressures on the municipalities. There is a lot of pressure on the provincial government. It starts at the top; if we get a downloading or a reduction in support from the federal level, then there's this domino effect, and we're dealing with that in the province. It puts a lot of pressure on the government of the day, what to do, for example, when we look at the cutback in housing transfers that is going to happen by the year 2034 and how that puts pressure on the provincial government and certainly also on - although the provincial government is responsible for housing, there is a lot of municipalities that are also seeing the value now of being involved in the Housing Strategy that we were able to bring forward. We had some very good and open conversations with the municipalities with that strategy.
One of the things that we were looking at in the strategy is that when it came - we were originally criticized because there weren't specific outcomes but the reason for that is because we were looking at the fact that if we were going into the Municipality of Chester versus going into the Town of Yarmouth or the Town of Bridgewater or to Sydney that the needs could be quite different and so the outcomes would be very different.
I know that Housing Nova Scotia is under the auspices of the Department of Community Services but I'm just wondering what type of discussions the minister has had with the Minister of Community Services all surrounding the housing strategy and encouraging the municipalities in terms of the - one of the frustrations is sometimes the bylaws interfere with what the outcomes need to be and the housing strategy that the provincial government is seeking and there needs to be a real open relationship to discuss those particular bylaws and perhaps make changes to them. For example, in some communities in-law suites are not permitted and we are moving towards a time where those can be very important for us as our population ages and our parents age and a lot of people are looking for the opportunity to be able to provide an in-law suite. In some areas it's not allowed.
I'm just wondering what kind of conversations have been taking place in order to support those efforts in the housing strategy.
MR. FUREY: I haven't had any direct discussion with the minister around the housing strategy but I am certainly aware of the municipal role in that planning component. I do want to speak very briefly to a recent piece of legislation that the previous government had moved. I believe my colleague was the minister at the time specific to the HRM zoning and legislation we certainly supported and just recently proclaimed. Municipalities have a responsibility around housing and our department has oversight over the municipal planning component and that includes housing. But specific to my colleague's question I've had no direct discussion with the minister specific to the housing strategy.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Thank you to the minister. I know, being in his role for such a short period of time, there is an enormous learning curve and amount of information thrown at you on a daily basis. I can understand those conversations might not have taken place at this time but I do encourage him that when the time is appropriate for him, I think it is a key component for the strategy to be successful because absolutely there are hindrances in terms of bylaws at a municipal level, when it comes to the type of housing structure that can be built within a municipality, therefore is not in concert with the actual strategy that the province is supporting. I thank him for his answer and encourage those conversations as they go forward.
I want to focus a little bit on CBRM. As we know, with respect to their financial situation, like many municipalities, and their struggles, they've been very vocal in terms of their needs and supports so I wonder what discussions the minister has actually had with the mayor and with any municipal councillors with respect to their situation and what those conversations that can be public were about?
MR. FUREY: I apologize to my colleague. I missed the first part of her question. Was it specific to a specific municipality or municipalities in general?
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: This question was with respect to CBRM.
MR. FUREY: My apologies to my colleague, I missed the first part of her question. Yes, I have personally met with the mayor approximately six weeks ago, with senior staff from both my department and the mayor's office. From those discussions I certainly recognize the challenges that CBRM is facing, as well as all other municipalities across the province. It was enlightening to see the passion that the mayor has for his community and how he speaks to the needs of his community with great passion.
What I'm able to share, without breaching the confidentiality of those discussions, is staff continue to work and, I stand to be corrected, but I believe the deputy minister and the acting chief financial officer for CBRM met yesterday to continue those discussions. I've asked staff within the department and my colleagues in Cabinet to explore opportunities where we are able to support not only CBRM but other municipalities that are facing challenges. We commit to that continued dialogue and as I said earlier, I'm an optimist and not a pessimist and I believe that we will be able to support some of these challenges in CBRM and other areas that have expressed similar challenges.
To my colleague's question, yes, we continue that dialogue and are working towards common denominators in addressing the challenges that CBRM has identified.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: I know that it is a particularly difficult situation to try to figure out because at the end of the day it comes down to the dollar and where the municipalities are looking to generate extra revenue because that's where they're finding the pressures, the same as the government is dealing with those financial pressures.
I wonder if it's going to go in a circular pattern because I've heard some conversations that the municipalities may look at charging school boards for services or whatever that may be provided in their communities for the school and then that will come back to the pressures on the school board and then we'll be dealing with the Education Minister. I'm just wondering, has he heard any of those kind of conversations of how that's going to be part of the struggles because the resolution may be seen as charging one area in the municipalities that actually will then just filtrate back through to the government and pressures on the government to increase budgets and perhaps for the school boards, if they are faced with those kind of new charges.
MR. FUREY: I'm not aware of those types of, I guess you'd call them cost recovery strategies within municipalities. I certainly haven't been part of those discussions nor has that been presented to me but what I will say is I think there is a larger discussion and a number of activities ongoing as we speak: the town's task force, the UNSM initiative in addressing challenges that towns are facing, the ongoing fiscal review that is looking at the fiscal challenges of municipalities right across the province, the tax review that the UNSM is doing as we speak, there are a number of initiatives that are specific to addressing the financial challenges and the viability of small towns and municipalities right across the province.
I do want to compliment the staff in the department who are really exploring many options and many possibilities. There has been a lot of talk around the education tax, equalization, HST rebate, these are all revenue initiatives or formulae and we recognize that municipalities are challenged by those circumstances. But I'll be quite honest, when I'm having those discussions, 38 to date and more to come over the next number of weeks, at the same time we are having those discussions I am also speaking to municipalities about the financial challenges that we as a province face and how important it is that collectively we recognize those challenges and work together to find solutions.
It's a bigger discussion than what my colleague has referenced and it is a discussion that we are engaged in. There is a tremendous amount of work going on behind the scenes to move on some of these concerns and try to find a balance so that municipalities can continue to provide the services and programs that the residents expect and that we as a province can continue to support our municipalities in those endeavours.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: I'm just wondering about - and probably you're not at this point yet - if there is a system of budget reviews on municipalities. I know myself, as a resident, people pay very much attention to the provincial budget and where dollars are spent, how many staff, et cetera, et cetera. What process is there in the province right now to do that with municipalities in terms of ensuring, for the taxpayers of the municipalities, that there is real accountability, that they understand where their tax dollars are going? I'm just wondering, is there a budget review process that his department is responsible for? I guess the main item in the question is to know, what is that accountability? There is often confusion in terms of the responsibilities and how municipalities and the government interconnect and who is in the position of power on this issue and so forth. There doesn't seem to be the same clarity in terms of - as a resident understanding or knowing how those dollars are spent and is there some accountability system of municipalities to the minister's department and to the government?
MR. FUREY: I thank my colleague for the question because I think it is a critical piece of transparency and, using my colleague's words, accountability for residents. I pay very close attention in my own community to the budget process in the Town of Bridgewater and the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg, and know that they are very transparent in hosting open budget meetings so that the public are able to attend. As my colleague is probably aware, we don't get a lot of public attendance to those sessions. They can be quite dry, for sure, when we are talking numbers.
The department has a process in place. There is an auditing process, a responsibility of each and every municipality, and they are submitted to the department for financial review. Municipalities are posting their budgets online for public awareness and familiarity. Of course in my role as the minister, one of the responsibilities I have is approval of borrowing resolutions for each and every municipality.
They have a debt service ratio that is the guideline for municipal borrowing. I can assure you, I question staff frequently on those submissions and often return them for additional information and call staff in so that I'm confident that when I'm signing off on a borrowing resolution for any municipality that it is justified; it's affordable to the municipality and the ability to pay is present.
In addition to that external of the department, and I think credit to the UNSM and their leadership and their collective membership - I referenced earlier the fiscal review. That is a collective initiative of the UNSM and our department, the municipal administrators. The FCI, the Financial Condition Index that I spoke to earlier, is a web-based tool that allows municipalities to assess their financial viability and future sustainability. There are 15 categories there that identify specifics of each and every municipality.
The process we're in right now with the FCI, in the final stages of that document where it has been prepared and distributed to municipalities for confirmation of its content, once that financial condition index is approved, the content is approved by municipalities, we as a department, in conjunction with the UNSM, will post that publicly for public information. I think that goes to my colleague's question around the transparency and accountability of revenues and expenditures in individual municipalities and their ability to manage their revenues and expenditures. That FCI model, as I said earlier, when I first saw it, it caught my attention. I was impressed with it and spent 15 or 20 minutes with staff who had developed that.
I made the statement at the time to the deputy, who was the acting deputy, and said that this is really going to give municipalities the ability to engage the public and share with the public the financial position that they're in and the financial challenges that they face. So when they speak about cutting services or raising taxes, they are able to communicate to their residents the rationale and the reasons for those positions. I think that bodes well for additional transparency at the municipal government level.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Time. We'll be reverting to the Official Opposition.
The honourable House Leader for the Official Opposition.
HON. CHRISTOPHER D'ENTREMONT: Thank you very much, and I'm just going to be a couple of moments. I think what we're going to try to do, in respect to your two separate departments, we have a few more questions around Municipal Affairs. Then maybe we could take a quick break to do the switch-out, and then we could pick up again on Service Nova Scotia, more specifically issues or the other responsibilities that you do have.
I think we have two more questioners for a few moments, maybe 15 or 20 minutes worth of stuff, and then we can do a switch-out and take a break if we need one for a few moments.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MS. KARLA MACFARLANE: My question to the minister is with regard to the Town of Pictou. I know that he himself and a few people from his department were kind enough to come and meet with the council regarding our water situation there.
I'm just wondering, there have been some concerns and statements circling in my hometown, and I'm again wondering what the status is on upgrading our water system there, as well as the fact that we have just learned that we are running a deficit of over $100,000. I'm just wondering if the minister would kindly update me on what he knows.
MR. FUREY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and to my colleague's question, certainly we had a very productive meeting with the mayor and council, which my colleague attended. We spoke about the water system upgrades in the Town of Pictou. There was some funding for the water infrastructure recently announced in the amount of $250,000, I believe was the figure. We have exhausted the existing Building Canada Fund monies, actually, in Pictou County, in the Town of Pictou and the Town of Westville, so there is no additional money from the previous fiscal year.
Where we are now, specific to my colleague's question, we are into a new fiscal year with the new Building Canada Fund and the new gas tax fund. One of the changes to the gas tax fund this year that I think my colleague will be pleased with is that in the past there have been specific categories where municipalities were restricted to spending that revenue. In the new gas tax program, water infrastructure is an eligible category, so the monies extended to the Town of Pictou through the gas tax fund this time, should they choose, if that's their priority - and I know it is, from the discussions we've had - they will be able to direct that money to water infrastructure.
MS. MACFARLANE: I thank the minister for his answer. I know that this situation with our water is actually broken down into three stages, so we haven't tapped into all funding that we'll need in order to see that project to completion. I'm sure we will be continuing dialogue, and yes, I'm very happy to hear about the tax situation.
Going back once again to the fact that we have just discovered we are running a deficit of over $100,000, I'm just wondering if he has any comments toward that, and what, in his opinion, would be our next best move for the Town of Pictou, with 1,300 taxpayers, a town that literally has, I believe, about 3,200 people.
When I was growing up in the 1980s in the town, I think the population was 5,000, so it's very disheartening to see that we're decreasing in our population. We're constantly struggling not to have a deficit, but the writing is somewhat on the wall that this is the situation for the Town of Pictou and many towns within the Province of Nova Scotia. If he could just give me a little bit of information on where he sees the Town of Pictou going. Thank you.
MR. FUREY: I thank my colleague for the question. I'm hearing from a number of municipalities that they are facing deficits. I know the elected officials and senior staff are working diligently to - the phrase I've heard used often is "squeeze the ball," and they can't squeeze the ball any more. It is depleted of any content. I recognize that the Town of Pictou is in those circumstances.
Last week I heard the mayor of the Town of Bridgewater - a population of 7,500, a $1 million deficit. I know they're struggling and really looking internally to find efficiencies in meeting their financial obligations and maintaining services that residents have come to expect.
It's challenging, no question about it. With the small tax base that my colleague has referenced, it makes it even more challenging. I know that in the discussions we've had with the Town of Pictou and the discussions that staff continue to have with the Town of Pictou they're working together to try and find solutions and outcomes that meet the needs not only of the town but the ability of the province to pay.
I hear the concerns of my colleague and would commit to continuing to work with the Town of Pictou in the manner we are to find solutions to those challenges.
MS. MACFARLANE: Mr. Chairman, at this point in time I am going to have my colleague from Kings North ask a few questions. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: Thank you, minister, for your answers to questions. I am delighted to be able to be here and ask you some.
I do want to ask some questions about the budget, but before I do that, I know that - and maybe you can comment on this; I don't know if you can answer it - but one issue that we see in Kings County is that the towns have certain responsibilities that we don't see in villages or in the municipality, and a key one would be in Kentville, the maintenance of the streets. You may know that Park Street in Kentville was, I believe, voted the worst road in Nova Scotia at one point. I think probably - I haven't driven on every road in Nova Scotia, but I would say - I can't comment on whether it truly is, but it was pretty bad. It was the responsibility of the Town of Kentville to repair that street.
I know the mayor of Kentville has expressed frustration that his town has to look after that infrastructure when just down the road there's a municipality and the villages that don't incur those costs. My question would be, can you comment on this sort of - I know this all goes back in time, in history, but how these things get decided of who bears what cost? Can you comment on that issue, and where you see us heading with that issue?
MR. FUREY: I want to thank my colleague for the question. This is probably second on the list to amalgamation as I travel around and meet with municipal leaders - the costs associated with the maintenance of the roads and the imbalance that has been presented when you speak about those responsibilities that the towns have and municipalities and villages don't, where the province maintains those roads.
This is a subject that is part of the fiscal review. The UNSM membership and committee that are moving the fiscal review forward, I know this forms part of those discussions. I'm looking forward to the outcomes of that fiscal review and the recommendations that the fiscal review may present around this very subject. I can tell my colleague that I hear this often. It is one of the topical discussions in those meetings with municipal leaders and senior staff around the province. I look forward to the outcome of the fiscal review and the recommendations that may flow from that review.
MR. LOHR: You've piqued my interest. What is number one? I'm just guessing, would that be policing? I don't know - you said that's the second most common issue. Maybe I should just like to ask that.
MR. FUREY: Yes, in my discussions - I'm being specific to the discussions I've had with municipalities - it's second only to the discussions around amalgamation.
MR. LOHR: Thank you, minister. Obviously the cost the towns bear on road repair represents a pretty major chunk of the municipal taxes that these towns bear. I know that in our area the towns have considerably higher taxes, and it is considered a major issue. I look forward to the result of that fiscal review.
I would like to ask some questions about your budget. I notice that the majority of your budget is for programs and grants, $144.9 million, and I know there would be a variety of programs in that. How much of that $144.9 million has already been earmarked for this year?
MR. FUREY: To my colleague's question, the numbers my colleague has referenced have been allocated to various categories within the department. Some of those categories would be application-based. For instance, the transit initiative, Building Canada, the Provincial Capital Assistance Program, some of the emergency services provider funds. Money has been allotted to each one of those budget lines and would capture the totality of the numbers that my colleague has referenced.
MR. LOHR: I noticed, Mr. Minister, that in your opening remarks you referenced the Building Canada Fund. Can I ask what you have allocated toward the Building Canada Fund?
MR. FUREY: To my colleague's question, there's still money remaining in the 2013-14 Building Canada Fund for completion of past projects. It is already allotted. That total is somewhere in the area of $8.2 million. Those monies would have already been spoken for, I guess is the best way to phrase it.
I spoke earlier about the Building Canada Fund, and we're not yet provided the details, so going forward into the 2014-15 fiscal year, we don't yet have the Building Canada Fund allocations. We anticipate that in the not-too-distant future.
MR. LOHR: That is cost-shared dollars, right? So is that cost-shared 50-50, the Building Canada Fund - federal and provincial money?
MR. FUREY: To my colleague's question, the Building Canada Fund is typically a formula that represents tripartite arrangements, so 33 per cent on the part of the provincial, the federal, and the municipal governments. There have been situations in the past where municipalities have contributed more than their share within the formula. That's not uncommon, but the disbursement of Building Canada funds is based on that 33 per cent formula.
MR. LOHR: I would like to ask specifically about the Flood Risk Infrastructure Investment Program that you mentioned. I believe it was $700,000. Could you provide some more detail on that program?
MR. FUREY: Just to expand a little on the comments I made earlier, the flood mitigation initiative this year is based on a pilot project of last year in the Truro-Colchester area. The funds allotted for that in this fiscal year are $700,000. That's application-based, and it's based on a 50 per cent formula between the municipality and the province.
As I indicated earlier, municipalities have identified some of their flood mitigation strategies, and based on their priorities, they would apply to the department for access to those funds, obviously with the submission of a business plan and to identify that area, whether it be dikes or berms or other flood mitigation strategies.
MR. LOHR: Can I ask if that money has been allocated for this year, or are you still waiting for applications? Has it been allocated?
MR. FUREY: To my colleague's question, that is an application-based program. It's my understanding that we've initiated that process and that the municipalities are able to apply. What I would say is that none of those monies have been allocated at this point.
MR. LOHR: At this time, Madam Chairman, I'd like to request a short break to allow you to bring in the Service Nova Scotia personnel. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: We are recessed for five minutes.
[4:37 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[4:43 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The Committee of the Whole on Supply will resume.
The honourable Minister of Service Nova Scotia.
MR. FUREY: If I may, given the division in responsibilities, provide opening remarks on Service Nova Scotia. At this time I want to introduce Cameron MacNeil, who is executive director of Program and Registry Management with Service Nova Scotia, and sitting in again is Marianne Hakkert-Lebel. Marianne is the director of finance for Service Nova Scotia.
In the division of the departments, I've come to realize that the only two people who carried on with the collective responsibilities were Marianne and myself, and everybody else had their duties cut in half. We work together quite closely.
Cameron is actually sitting in for Scott Farmer. Scott is the acting executive director of Service Nova Scotia until our public and merit-based process to fill the job is completed.
It's no secret why we have applied the language of business to the top position in Service Nova Scotia - that title CEO - because it is important that we're business-focused. This reflects our government's commitment and my personal commitment as minister that this organization will act in a businesslike way. It will be responsive to the needs of citizens, it will enable business to prosper, and it will focus on providing superior service to all Nova Scotians.
Another important distinction will set Service Nova Scotia apart from its predecessor. We will create a new client advisory board, one that will provide real input into the operations of the agency. The board will work closely with the CEO and staff to ensure government provides the best quality of service possible to Nova Scotians, whether it's in our Access Centres directly to citizens or if it's cutting red tape for businesses.
I should also comment, that board, special operating agency designation with a corresponding operating charter and the appointment of an advisory board would come into effect April 1, 2015. The board will provide advice and counsel to the agency and it will provide important real-world insight into the issues, challenges and opportunities facing Nova Scotians. I want to assure all Nova Scotians that this transition from one department to two new organizations will be accomplished without adding more employees or new spending.
The CEO replaces the former position of associate deputy minister that existed within the previous department of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations. Obviously, with the division in the department, that position is no longer required and the position simply is being transferred to Service Nova Scotia for purposes of facilitating the creation of the CEO. There will be no additional hires and any transitional costs will be incidental and borne within the department.
Many of you know that Service Nova Scotia is a diverse organization with responsibilities that literally range from birth to death. Ours is a client-centred organization whose mission is to make a valued difference in the lives of Nova Scotians. There are few citizens in the province who will not have direct contact with Service Nova Scotia at some point. In fact, Service Nova Scotia manages some 6 million client interactions each and every year.
The department provides service in a variety of ways. One is through an increasing array of online services. More and more Nova Scotians are doing business with us digitally, registering births and deaths, renewing vehicle and business permits, getting information about land and properties, just to name a few. Services are provided in person at one of our more than 40 locations across the province and commonly referred to as our Access Centres or land registry offices.
Many Nova Scotians deal with us by telephone and email, calling our contact centres toll free to access information around the full range of Government of Nova Scotia services. They do it in both official languages.
We are continuing to search for operational efficiencies and cost savings in the way we provide service to Nova Scotians. One of the ways we are doing this is in seeking out opportunities to co-locate our Access Nova Scotia Centres with land registration offices. This is something we do when existing leases expire so we don't incur additional expense. Through the public tendering process, we identify ways to reduce costs and make services more convenient by providing one-stop shopping and ample parking.
Last November, we were able to accomplish this in Truro, where we opened the new Truro Access Centre in a beautiful new building on Alderbrook Drive in Truro Heights. Not only is this office more accessible than the two offices it replaced, the move has helped us reduce our annual lease cost by $25,000 per year.
Later this year, we will open a new Access Nova Scotia Centre in Bridgewater. It will bring together the current Access Nova Scotia office, the land registration office and the Department of Environment under one roof. This will mean greater convenience to citizens of Lunenburg County while reducing our lease costs at the same time.
Another important area of service that I'd like to highlight is our effort to increase the use of online service channels. Obtaining service digitally using personal computers, tablets and smartphones makes sense for a growing number of Nova Scotians. As the use of these online service channels grow, need for more expensive in-person services is reduced.
Earlier this year, we launched the "save the trip" campaign. This promotional campaign using radio, newspaper and social media reminds users that many of the services they need can be found online. There's no need to travel to a facility and they can certainly save the trip.
Nova Scotians can do business with government from the comfort of their own homes. It's as simple as that. Having said that, we have not lost sight of the fact that there is still a percentage of our Nova Scotia population who don't use online services. We will continue to provide, to the capacity possible, those personal services throughout Nova Scotia.
Initially, we're focusing on vehicle permit renewals. We know that many people continue to come to our offices, sometimes at the busiest times of day, to renew their permits and obtain new stickers for their licence plates. We want them to be aware that they can complete the transaction without leaving home and they can print a certificate to use as proof of the registration until their stickers arrive in the mail.
Yes, getting the services saves the trip, and I really do want to emphasize that. The convenience of people's ability to access those services, whether it be from home or from work or from the cottage, remains available, and it saves taxpayers money.
Of course, this is just one of the services that we offer online. You can change your address, request birth, marriage and death certificates, pay fines and do many other things online. We continue to add to our suite of online services and our promotional campaign will highlight these other services as we move forward.
Another way we make it easier for Nova Scotians to interact with government is through the programs Access for Citizens and Access to Business, commonly referred to as A4C and A2B. These two programs include a wide range of services that collectively provide better access to government services, reduce red tape and offer more self-service options.
One of these initiatives is called Life Event Bundling. Life Event Bundling makes it easier for Nova Scotians to interact with government through an integrated bundle of services. The birth bundle service allows parents to register the birth of their child and register for other government programs and services using a self-service kiosk available in nine hospitals throughout the province. Those nine hospitals account for 97 per cent of the births in Nova Scotia. The kiosk is serving a very valuable purpose.
Just for the benefit of the members in the House, I just want to identify which hospitals they are so that they themselves can become familiar with that availability. Obviously the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the Cape Breton Regional Hospital at the Sydney site, Valley Regional Hospital, Colchester, South Shore Regional Hospital, St. Martha's in Antigonish, Yarmouth Regional Hospital, Aberdeen in New Glasgow, and Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre.
Most new parents will only have to complete one electronic form to submit their child's birth registration information and to apply for their birth certificate, their health card, their Canada Child Benefit and their social insurance number. This is convenient shopping.
This past February, government introduced the new bereavement service bundle. It provides information to Nova Scotians who must deal with the death of a loved one. A new publication provides a single source of information to help citizens navigate through all levels of government at this most stressful time in their lives. The bereavement bundle also supports business, allowing funeral directors to electronically submit death information to the province. The new service was piloted by a few funeral homes prior to being rolled out province-wide earlier this year. I'm pleased to say it has been enthusiastically received by the industry.
This is an example of the kind of innovative business-focused programs that form the basis of an initiative that we call Access to Business. We will continue to expand Access to Business this year, improving business access to government services in partnership with other provincial departments and agencies, municipalities and industry alike.
Access to Business allows companies and entrepreneurs to do business with government more efficiently. Those areas would include more licence permit and renewal applications online, grant and contribution applications and renewals online, industry sector bundles and business profile management.
This year, we've committed a capital investment of $7.4 million to the Access to Business and Access for Citizens program and increased our annual operating budget by $352,000 to support these important initiatives. These A4C and A2B are ground-breaking programs that put Nova Scotia first when we look at comparable programs across the country and I want to give credit, Madam Chairman, to the previous government where this initiative was initiated under my predecessor, John MacDonell, in his role as Minister of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations and I certainly want to thank him for his support of the program and as we move forward, our ability to build on that most important initiative.
I also want to mention one example of the success of Access to Business. In late January I announced the Restaurant and Accommodations Industry Sector bundle and I'm very excited about this initiative. Service Nova Scotia is partnering with municipalities and with the restaurant and accommodations industry to slash red tape and make it easier to do business in Nova Scotia. For the first time in Canada business and government have come together to deliver a comprehensive bundle of specific services through a single online tool. We know, and I hear frequently from the business community, that the regulatory burden is significant on our restaurants and accommodations sector and our efforts are to improve and mitigate those pressures that businesses experience.
If we are going to cut through the red tape and make business more competitive, we will have to work hand-in-hand with our partners to find these solutions. That's why we have created a Restaurant and Accommodations Industry Advisory Group. It is made up entirely of owner/operators across the province, with representation from industry associations. The group will identify needed improvements and regulations and the delivery of services to support businesses, improve their competitiveness, and strengthen our economy.
We have been collaborating with industry on this initiative over the past number of months and we are making significant process. We have worked together with three pilot municipalities: Halifax Regional Municipality, the Town of Truro, and the Town of Antigonish and together they have identified a set of more than 40 provincial and municipal licences and permits that are now required by accommodation providers and food service establishments in order to carry on business.
The challenges of managing those expectations - I had the opportunity last evening to speak with a pharmacist who is an independent owner of a Pharmasave in one of our rural communities and she spoke extensively on these very issues, the challenges that she faces, how it is impacting her and her business and the bottom line.
Over the next year we'll ramp up our engagement with our industry partners, Madam Chairman, identifying opportunities and confirm the project priorities before designing and implementing the new online tools. This is an example of the measure that we will take this year to cut red tape and reduce needless regulations that stifle business competitiveness. Another example was my announcement earlier this year of changes to the liquor licensing regulations to allow microbreweries to sell their locally made brews right from their bar. It's about convenience and making it easier for Nova Scotia business people to do what they do best and that is carry on business. These brew pubs can now serve their customers and avoid the extra red tape that has been burdensome for them and in many cases additional employees and a separate site for the purpose of meeting previous regulations.
This is another example, Madam Chairman, of the kinds of measures that Service Nova Scotia and the staff have continued to develop and will continue to undertake to support our business community, but make no mistake, we will not abandon our responsibility to protect Nova Scotia consumers with meaningful regulations when and where it counts and we are very conscious of those circumstances and the need to protect consumers.
Just last week I announced two changes to two Acts that govern the province's funeral and cemetery services initiatives. The amendments included a number of important measures including the establishment of a new code of ethics within the industry and other provisions will help strengthen protection for funds held in trust and require consumer notification when funeral homes are sold, moved, or closed.
Most important, consumers will be able to fund their prearranged funeral plans by purchasing funeral service insurance through the funeral homes. Not only does this give consumers more options but it protects both consumers and business operators by allowing the sale of underwritten insurance products.
Earlier this sitting, Madam Chairman, I announced changes to the Direct Sellers' Regulation Act that will increase protection for seniors and other consumers from misleading and aggressive door-to-door salespeople. These were observations that I made in my previous career in policing and the challenges we faced in addressing the needs of our senior population and those most vulnerable in dealing with door-to-door salespeople.
The changes provide greater consumer protection for door-to-door sales and will give us flexibility to address emerging issues as they arise. Our ability to act quickly and publicize non-compliance is important to protect consumers.
Some of the amendments will substantially increase fines for individuals and corporations that do not comply with the law and give consumers more freedom to get out of unfavourable, long-term contracts. I think it is important that consumers, particularly our seniors population and most vulnerable, will now be able to terminate a contract at any time and avoid unknown and excessive fees.
These measures, touching the direct sales and funeral services industry, support both consumer and ethical businesspeople. In this initiative, Madam Chairman, we continue to consult and build relationships with all our business partners. I know many of my colleagues on both sides of the floor have past and/or present business experiences and these are opportunities that will really enhance small business in Nova Scotia.
This year we will undertake the foundational work to support a comprehensive new consumer protection strategy. Through this strategy we will identify areas where we can enhance our enforcement framework while reducing or removing regulations where it is no longer required. We will work with the federal government and other provinces on the Consumer Measures Committee to study issues that matter to Canadian consumers: consumer awareness, payday lending, and electronic commerce, among others.
We will streamline inspections of the industries that we regulate, such as payday lenders, mortgage brokers, funeral homes and others to improve our focus on risk-based inspections. We will continue our engagement with stakeholders in the condominium sector as we work to make further improvements to the Condominium Act and regulations. We will enhance the information available for condominium registration and ownership to make the process more transparent to developers and owners alike.
One area that we will be watching very closely is the area of contraband tobacco. Nova Scotia has one of the lowest rates of tobacco smuggling in Canada, less than 5 per cent thanks to the effective partnership within our law enforcement community. I should note, Madam Chairman, this is down from a rate of 30 per cent just nine years ago. We are conscious of circumstances as we speak and will monitor this particular area very closely. In that time, Service Nova Scotia enforcement officers, over the past nine years, have worked with law enforcement in almost 600 cases to seize over 225,000 cartons of illegal tobacco products. Having said all that, tobacco does remain a concern and we must remain vigilant in our efforts in this area.
In discussions with our staff, I've asked staff to continue to work collaboratively with our law enforcement partners to combat tobacco smuggling. This is a critical piece of work that could have a significant impact in the underground sale of tobacco and have a significant impact on our province.
In closing, Madam Chairman, I want to again compliment the staff in Service Nova Scotia. Since I came in, now going on seven months, I can tell you how impressed I have been with the commitment and dedication of staff in Service Nova Scotia. I see a level of excitement not only in Service Nova Scotia but across Municipal Affairs as well, a revitalization and a keen interest in their work, the skill sets of the employees and their innovative way of solving problems and creating solutions has been impressive and is not lost on me in the support they extend to me in my role as minister. I know they work diligently, late hours and weekends, to ensure that the programs and services are responsive to the needs of all Nova Scotians. I simply wanted to take the opportunity to recognize them for that.
With those comments, I certainly welcome questions from my colleagues across the floor.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: As one of those Nova Scotians who has made, I'm sure, my share of those 6 million trips into Access Nova Scotia in the past year, I will commend the staff there on the high level of service. As a consumer of that service, I've noted too the process of having more services in one location. I think it has been a tremendous asset to the public of Nova Scotia to be able to go in and get land registry information and other government services even beyond what you mentioned in those Access Nova Scotia locations. I think it's a great move.
I will also commend you on the effort to reduce red tape. Your mentioning of the number of permits required to open a food and dining establishment and so on is shocking. Surely some of those must be able to be consolidated into one or two fewer applications. There must be duplication in those applications, so I commend you on wanting to do that. I think that is an excellent endeavour.
Likewise, I would commend you and your department on the bundling process - the life event bundling - I think too is an admirable decision to go that way and to offer that service. I know that it would be of great use either in life or in the passing of a loved one to have access to that type of service, so I commend you on that.
I guess I would want to start on one of the last things you mentioned, and that was illegal tobacco. I did note you said that it has been in decline. I guess the sense out in the general public is that it's not in decline - that it is slowly increasing, the consumption of illegal tobacco. I know you mentioned that we're now less than 5 per cent, but in the last year and a half, two years, can you comment on whether that is trending up or down?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Before I recognize the honourable minister, I would like to remind members of the House who are addressing ministers to please make their comments through the Chair in the third person. I would appreciate that, thank you.
The honourable Minister of Service Nova Scotia.
MR. FUREY: I just want to speak briefly to my colleague's comments around the whole location of the facilities. Certainly, that serves a valuable purpose and cost savings to taxpayers, but I don't want to lose sight of the fact that we still have a responsibility to provide services to Nova Scotians where we're not able to establish those co-location facilities. With the recent structure opened in Truro, I've been to Stellarton and a number of other locations around the province. There are various models that will continue to meet the needs of Nova Scotians.
I am very pleased to recognize that that next facility will be in Bridgewater. I know how important that will be to residents of that community, and bringing three of those government agencies under one roof.
To my colleague's primary question specific to contraband tobacco, the department staff and the law enforcement community are working very closely in this regard, and that includes both the RCMP and municipal police services as well as federal partners and law enforcement partners in other provinces. The intelligence that that police community shares and is privy to is an important part of detection and apprehension.
Specific to the numbers, we've noticed a minor spike this past February when there was an additional tax imposed by the federal government. We anticipated a slight shift, but I think what's most important is that staff and law enforcement are out ahead of that. They recognize the potential for the increased importation of contraband tobacco and they continue to work diligently to mitigate those circumstances and, to the best of their ability, maintain that rate at that 4 to 5 per cent level.
MR. LOHR: Thank you, minister, for that answer. I guess I would like to go on to the Liquor Control Act. I know that Service Nova Scotia has a component in reviewing that and ensuring safe consumption by maintaining a risk-based inspection system. Can you provide details to that and also how much money is spent in providing that service?
MR. FUREY: I appreciate the question from my colleague. The process that the department uses is based on best practices and identifies the areas of likely infraction. The objective is not - it's actually a shift from one of enforcement to one of education. The outcomes, we believe, are much more productive in identifying the potential for likely infractions, and it may be specific to facilities or locations, and staff working collectively with proprietors to mitigate the incidence of offence and to educate staff in those facilities to ensure that there's a higher level of compliance and less incidents and, in turn, less pressure and draw on our resources.
Specific to your question around budget, the monies available, there's just over $3 million to support a staff of 38 individuals who work in the area. They're responsible for regular inspections of approximately 500 licensed premises throughout the province. That would include travelling shows and festivals and special occasion licences and weddings and those types of community events.
It is about ensuring compliance. I know, speaking from a previous enforcement capacity, I was a big promoter of community-based initiatives and whether it was youth or whether it was facilities with alcohol licences or whether it was seniors, to engage and educate was much more productive. The outcomes were much more productive and certainly at a significantly less cost to service providers.
I'm seeing the same methodology within the alcohol and gaming section. I think this is really the direction that we should be going and confident in the outcomes and sustaining this as we go forward.
MR. LOHR: Can I ask, those 38 people, are they also responsible for gaming, tobacco, and also alcohol? Do they do all three?
MR. FUREY: The 38 staff whom I spoke to are specific to alcohol and gaming. There are an additional 20 resources for fuel and tobacco audits - that's an audit component - and there are an additional 12 staff - compliance staff, who work in both tobacco and fuel.
MR. LOHR: My question to the minister, is there any anticipation that your change in the regulations on microbreweries would add - I guess I would add additional locations to those 5,000 already visited. I'm just wondering if there is any anticipation of that or any need for expanded motoring of the microbreweries.
MR. FUREY: The microbrewery piece - we anticipate there will be a slight increase in the number of those facilities. From a human resource perspective, we're quite confident that we can manage those additional pressures within the existing resources. When we look at the licensing of those facilities, it may require some additional support, but that would be premature to say for sure at this time. But we're certainly conscious of the possibility and I know staff have given that appropriate consideration.
MR. LOHR: My question would be, and maybe we're using the same - the terminology is the same, but would you call a microbrewery a u-vint? I know the legislation just recently brought in will see the introduction of a number of u-vints in the province. I'm just wondering if that is the same terminology, and how does your department intend to address and monitor those u-vints?
MR. FUREY: The additional pressures that both the u-vint and the microbreweries - two separate entities; the u-vint is a make-your-own-wine concept, and the microbrewery is the piece about existing microbreweries or new microbreweries and their ability to sell their product within their facility for the patron to take home - the pressures - the additional numbers, we believe, for purposes of licensing and compliance, we will be able to absorb within existing resources. As I said earlier, staff are very conscious that there may be some additional pressure, but it would be premature to suggest the resources required at this time.
MR. LOHR: Could you give us your anticipation of the number of microbreweries and the number of new u-vints that will step up? You must have some estimation of that number if you calculate that your staff will be sufficient to deal with it.
MR. FUREY: Specific to the microbreweries, we can anticipate, I believe - reasonable to anticipate a slight increase in those facilities, but not significant. With regard to u-vints, there are probably 30 to 40 existing facilities that sell wine kits, and I think it's reasonable to anticipate that we could anticipate an increase in the number of u-vints.
I know when the Minister of Finance and Treasury Board spoke yesterday in the House to the industry in Bridgewater, which is an area I'm very familiar with, and not that long ago there was only one u-vint facility and there's now three. We can anticipate a spike, but presently with existing resources, we believe we can manage up to numbers that would total probably 50 in both sectors of u-vint and microbreweries.
MR. LOHR: Maybe I should know the answer to this question, but u-vints would also be brewing beer, would they not? They would not only be doing wine, but they would be brewing beer on their premises.
MR. FUREY: Yes, the availability of beer kits is present in those u-vint facilities as well.
MR. LOHR: What are the plans to control the possibility that those products will get into underage hands? Is that one thing that Service Nova Scotia would be monitoring to be sure that the sale of those products would not get into the wrong hands? How would you do that?
MR. FUREY: Certainly that is a responsibility of Alcohol and Gaming within the department. I want to speak again to the working relationship that staff have created with the law enforcement community. I can speak myself to that previous experience and how important it is to not only recognize accessibility to alcohol products, but to mitigate that accessibility.
That is done primarily through enforcement and education. When you look at the industry, knowing the industry as I do in my community, we're talking about very responsible businesspeople who are conscious of those circumstances and they don't want that reputation. They want to be known as good corporate citizens. They take steps, in partnership with our law enforcement community and staff in our department, to mitigate the very risks that my colleague has identified.
Do we eliminate that access? No, but certainly the opportunity, through those co-operative initiatives in education and enforcement, to certainly mitigate any additional access to alcohol as a result of these facilities.
MR. LOHR: Thank you to the minister for that answer. I guess my other question about that would be, would your department be responsible for ensuring the collection of taxes on those? That would be an aspect of what Service Nova Scotia is monitoring in the liquor licensing so that the proper taxes are being paid on the alcohol being used, correct?
MR. FUREY: The responsibility for the collection of tax would fall with the Department of Finance and Treasury Board under the minister - just the way that industry works or any, I guess, sale of products in the province. The Department of Finance and Treasury Board would manage the collection of tax.
MR. LOHR: But your 38 inspectors would be checking that? I'll give you a scenario, and maybe you'll tell me if this is true; if you are a restaurant owner and you purchased alcohol at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation, you would be paying - and maybe this is old information, but this is what I recall - paying a small premium for that alcohol. It would receive a sticker on the bottle. Then, when you are selling that alcohol in your licensed premises, you would be selling alcohol that you had paid a slight margin more for, for the privilege of selling that, and that's what your inspectors would be checking. Would that be correct or is that 10-year-old information?
MR. FUREY: Yes, the role of Alcohol and Gaming specific to alcohol that is purchased under the circumstances that my colleague has referenced is to ensure that that's the only alcohol they're selling in those facilities. There's no tax on the collection of alcohol sales. It's on the service provided.
MR. LOHR: My question is - and this is sort of my general question about this, and I realize this may be stretching beyond your department a little bit - but this general question about the u-vints, in that we're asking our licensed restaurateurs and bar owners to pay the full amount in tax, and then we're allowing u-vints to be virtually untaxed and supplying the public. I guess I have a concern about that on behalf of those people who are operating licensed establishments. I just wonder if you could comment on what taxes the u-vint operations will attract and what you will be monitoring in those u-vint operations.
MR. FUREY: To my colleague's question, the sale of the u-vint product is - there's an applicable tax on the purchase of a u-vint product. There's no excise tax on the product itself. That's a fiscal decision made within government, and in particular, the area of responsibility being the Department of Finance and Treasury Board.
MR. LOHR: I guess when I phrased the question, I realized that was likely the answer. My point being, I think it's a little bit unfair to the licensed restaurateurs and bar owners that this new stream of alcohol enters the province without attracting these excise taxes. I realize that's beyond the scope of your department, but that is my comment.
I want to switch gears now and ask about another thing that has been of concern to me personally, and that is the website ViewPoint.ca. I wonder if you're familiar with that website and the content of that website. There's an enormous amount of information on the website about all of our property. If I was to go on that website, I would be able to see exactly what you paid for your property and what your property taxes are. I would know if your property taxes had gone up or gone down. If you've ever looked at it, it is rather stunning. It came to my attention a couple of months ago.
I wonder if you have seen it and if you can comment on the amount of information available, and if in your opinion - I realize that that must have all been publicly-available information, but it has been put together in a new and easy-to-see format which is rather astounding. I'm just wondering if you can comment on that, and if you have any concerns.
MR. FUREY: I thank my colleague for the question. I will tell you that I've been on ViewPoint.ca as part of that information-gathering process when I purchased my most recent home, and I recognize not only the quantity of information but the detail of information on that site. One of the things I think of as well - and I've been on the PVSC site recently as well, and to a large degree can access similar information from PVSC. As a proprietor, you get a user ID and a password, and you can research your own circumstances, but you can also, by address, research your neighbours' information.
These are two practices, but to my colleague's question, the ViewPoint.ca practice is a general information tool available, as I recall, in most provinces. To some, it may be considered an invasion of privacy, but I would suggest, given our legal experts, probably an initiative that has met the legal test. That's probably the most I can offer in response to my colleague's question.
MR. LOHR: Thank you for that answer, Mr. Minister. My guess is that that information was all publicly available and simply assembled in a new way which makes it very readily accessible, but it is a rather - if you want to get your neighbour's attention, I can suggest that going to him and saying, "I see that your assessment went up," is a good way of getting a good rise out of your neighbour. I think that my guess is that the public in general, while they may become accustomed to this in general, would think that maybe too much information is available on that website. I would suggest that you look into that and maybe think about whether the actual assessment amount should be that readily available, maybe the price that the property sold for - whether really, do we want to have that much information available? I wonder about that.
I would like to ask a question about your amusement control and gaming control. Your department is responsible for gaming control. I'm wondering if you can tell us how many VLTs are in the province and whether you see the number of VLTs going up or going down, and where your department is in control of the video lottery terminals.
MR. FUREY: I apologize for the delay in response. I don't have all of the information that my colleague is asking for. What I do know is there is a moratorium on VLTs. Approximately 2,100 in the province as we speak. I know from my own experience in my community, where some of the liquor establishments had this equipment, there has been a reduction. They've expressed to me concerns around revenues that they were depending on. But I certainly commit to my colleague to explore further and be able to answer his question in a more detailed and appropriate manner.
MR. LOHR: I guess I have heard too that this form of gambling is considered a sunset industry, that there are new forms of gambling on the Internet available that are more readily accessible and are growing. My concern about VLTs - and I again realize this may stretch beyond your department - but would be that in Hammonds Plains recently, there were VLTs brought in and the community was not involved in the consultation of that. I realize that that is partly a federal issue, but I'm just wondering if you could comment on community consultation or have any comment on that issue.
MR. FUREY: I can't speak with any knowledge to my colleague's question specific to the community he has talked about. The VLTs are a responsibility of the Atlantic Lottery Corporation, which is a separate independent agency.
I do want to speak to my colleague's point about consultation and how important that is for me in our department, in Service Nova Scotia. I know in various meetings with staff, whether we're talking about departmental policy, or regulations, or legislation how important it is to me that staff have engaged the stakeholders. I consider the community to be part of that stakeholder group. I go back to my days in policing and how important it was for me, with that community-based concept, that community-based methodology of reaching out to community members, whether they are business owners or residents, and hosting town hall meetings and really being informed about the issues and concerns in communities. To me that is the most important part of any discussion regardless of what industry we're speaking to. With that, I'll leave my answer as is.
MR. LOHR: I would like to shift to a comment you made in your opening remarks about the Client Advisory Board. I know you mentioned this would be put in place April 1, 2015. Can you tell us how many people will sit on that board? Will there be remuneration for those people and how will they be selected?
MR. FUREY: Thank you for the question. It is certainly an emerging model of business within government. The CEO position has recently been advertised and the progress and development of that agency and that board will be predicated on the hiring of the CEO. The CEO leading that initiative, really a work in progress at this time to consider the very points that my colleague has referenced and the compilation and the structure of that board and remuneration that will be extended to those individuals. That is very much a work in progress and certainly as we move forward, we will keep all members of the House informed on that progress.
MR. LOHR: At this time I would like to turn it over to my colleague.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MS. KARLA MACFARLANE: My question is directed towards earlier statements that you made with regard to a new initiative around funeral homes. You indicated you had used a number of funeral homes as pilot projects to see how this would work out. I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on what it actually entails. I know a few funeral homes in my area have contacted me, they have not received any information about it. Perhaps it was mail that they misplaced, I'm not certain, but I'm really more or less following up on their concerns and questions surrounding what it exactly entails and if there is any cost to them at the end of the day.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I'd like to remind the members of the House to please direct their questions through the Chair. Unfortunately, I don't make the rules but I do get to enforce them and so if you would please direct your comments through the Chair in the third person, I would appreciate that.
MR. FUREY: The legislation that we brought forward was based on a pilot project and the legislation was also based on extensive consultation in the industry. There are two groups that represent funeral home owners in the province. There is the Funeral Service Association of Nova Scotia, within the province, and there is the Embalmers and Funeral Directors Association.
I've met with representation from one group, personally, and corresponded with the president of the second group and know him personally as a funeral director in the Bridgewater area. There was extensive discussion in the industry, first and foremost, to identify the funeral homes that would participate in the pilot project, and extensive engagement and consultation with the industry around the legislation itself. I can't speak to the operators of the facilities that my colleague has referenced, but certainly have engaged both of the associations that would represent those individuals or funeral home owners in the province.
MS. MACFARLANE: I thank the minister for his answers. Perhaps the minister could elaborate a little bit more on what is expected of the owners of these funeral homes, through this legislation. I think that they have no clear idea of what exactly they are to do with this legislation because they have received no information. Once again it could be they have misplaced mail or they are just not aware of what the legislation actually entails.
MR. FUREY: The engagement process was extensive and it included mail-out, information sessions, online access, and a template methodology program for funeral home operators to access and submit information and that's forwarded to Service Nova Scotia online, which facilitates a much quicker turnaround and less risk of loss of information.
To date we are experiencing a 73 per cent uptake from funeral homes across the province and significant complements from the industry itself on this initiative. Specific to my colleague's concern, relative to those owners in Pictou County, from a department perspective we would certainly be prepared to reach out to them and further communicate the processes and the objectives of that initiative at the earliest opportunity.
MS. MACFARLANE: I'm wondering about the mapping and property identification number selling land, moving, putting land in someone else's name. I'm wondering if the minister's department is comfortable in the service they have provided on their website. I've had a few calls and I am not sure if it is so much that the individuals aren't able to navigate the system or if it is a lack of it not being updated well enough. I have had had a number of individuals come in and say that they can't seem to switch over names from one property to another and so I'm just wondering if they are happy with that system in place.
MR. FUREY: Certainly facing some challenges but I would commit to getting back to my colleague, Madam Chairman, with a more responsive answer.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E16 stand?
Resolution E16 stands.
Resolution E36 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $102,102,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Service Nova Scotia, pursuant to the estimate.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E36 carry?
Resolution E36 is carried.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Madam Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and report progress to the House.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 5:54 p.m.]