Along the streets of Springhill, N.S., the potholes outnumber the young people. Infrastructure is crumbling and twentysomethings are fleeing in search of jobs.
Property taxes are the second-highest in the province and nearly half the town is in arrears. Springhill still maintains its own police force, which absorbs at least one quarter of its $7-million budget.
Last week, Mayor Maxwell Snow announced that Springhill – with its proud coal-mining history and famous native daughter, Anne Murray, whose husky voice put it on the map – was to be dissolved and amalgamated with Cumberland County. A town of 3,800 people 40 kilometres southeast of the New Brunswick border, Springhill is being characterized as the "canary in the coal mine" – the first of many struggling communities in rural Nova Scotia that will likely have to amalgamate.
"We've been trying to maintain, but how long can we continue to maintain?" asks Mr. Snow, a retired Salvation Army minister. "I'm afraid the end of the road has come."
Pride runs deep in this town, which has survived three mining disasters and the closing of the coal mines that were its lifeblood. So it was no surprise that the mayor's sudden announcement upset some residents.
"Miners worked so hard to build this town and then died for this town," says John Porter, whose father was a coal miner. "There is blood on the coal here. This is so sad for it to be the end of Springhill, to see it go into the county … it kind of hurts."
But Springhillers are also a resilient lot, and some wonder why it took so long to come to this decision. "You can only go so long and go so far in the hole," says Henry Hibberts. "I said to the wife about five or six years ago, 'I knew this was going to happen exactly.'" Adds Dick Porter: "What can we do? We got no more money; the town is broke."
Many believe the decision will bring better roads (county roads are maintained by the province), lower property taxes and maybe even some industry to augment the federal penitentiary, battery factory and plant that makes plastic containers.
Springhill is one of five communities, each with its own government, within Cumberland County, which has 42,000 people. Springhillers pay $2.52 per $100 assessment in property taxes. Just outside town, county residents pay $1.02, an incentive to move outside town limits. The town snowplow has to weave, turn and backtrack to avoid accidentally going over the line into the county – hardly the most efficient way to maintain roads. And most Springhillers agree their roads are deplorable.
Jamie Baillie, the area MLA and Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative leader, believes Springhill is leading the way. He says duplication is holding the province back. He wants the Liberal government to take the lead and cut the number of municipal governments. There are 54 small communities in the province, each with its own government and services, within 18 counties. Mr. Baillie suggests the towns and villages merge into the counties.
"We would go from 54 and 500 municipal councillors to 18 to potentially less than 100 councillors all at once," he says, saying this would result in more efficient government, lower taxes, better co-ordination of services and the best chance of creating jobs.
Others aren't so sure that amalgamation is the key to municipal reform. David Corkum is the mayor of Kentville, a town of 6,020 in the Annapolis Valley, and also the president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities, which speaks for local governments.
"One size doesn't fit all," he says. "We have to be open to whatever the case may be." He doesn't believe amalgamation should be forced on any community, and says merging into a bigger entity takes away control from the town. His town shares some services, such as transit, fire and sewer, with neighbouring communities, and brags that it is "doing fabulous."
Municipal Affairs Minister Mark Furey is touring the province to get a read on the situation – he says he is discussing amalgamation with a "number of municipalities," though he won't name them. He believes the province is overgoverned, but is not about to force amalgamation on anyone. "This is a complicated process. It's not going to happen overnight," he says.
This week, the province appointed former Tory cabinet minister John Leefe to lead the transition for Springhill. He and his team will talk to the county about how to merge services – such as the police force, which could result in job losses. The county is policed by the RCMP. "So you can read between the lines," Mr. Snow says. The transition is to be complete by March 31, 2015.
Long-time residents say there is little worry that losing town status means losing their identity. Marjorie Chapman, 86, puts it this way: "It will still be Springhill to me, it doesn't matter what."