Council and residents consider next steps
© Heather Killen photo
Bridgetown residents receive grim news about the town's bottom line and are looking at the next steps.
The Town of Bridgetown is at a crossroad and is asking its residents for direction.
Ever since Springhill announced its intention to dissolve its town status, the hot topic of Bridgetown’s future governance is being tossed around.
About 75 people came out to an information meeting held March 18 at the Bridgetown Legion to discuss the town’s current and future financial situation. Following a presentation from town officials, people had an informal discussion about the town’s options for the future.
Rachel Turner, town CAO, and Mayor Horace Hurlburt led the discussion by reviewing the towns’ past and current financial situation. Despite significant tax increases and aggressive budget cuts made over the past three years, the town is facing another projected shortfall in revenue in its upcoming budget.
Mayor Hurlburt told the group this meeting was called to provide people with information and gather feedback to help council determine the next steps.
“No decisions have been made,” he said. “This is a tough road, we’re looking for input. We need to make decisions based on fact, not emotion. We have to look at the long term viability and best interests for the community.”
Despite the aggressive initiatives that have been introduced, there`s an estimated shortfall likely in the 2013/2014 budget and another deficit projected in the 2014/2015 budget. While the town’s debt ratio is expected to fall at 12.76 per cent, within the province’s acceptable parameter of 15 per cent, there is no room to borrow new money, or make upgrades to town infrastructure.
Turner gave a grim overview of the town’s ability to meet its current obligations, with staff stretched beyond capacity. The town infrastructure is failing, and there is no reserve to fall back on. She added the bare-bones budget allows no room for repairs and upgrades, or reserve to offset emergencies.
“Despite the strong initiatives we are still faced with challenges and they are accumulating,” she said.
The new accounting program being used by the finance department is able to forecast various scenarios up to 10 years, and has been a powerful tool to help councils forecast the long-term effects of its decisions. In order to balance the upcoming budget, residents can likely expect another .14 tax increase.
Beyond 2014/2015 there is no capacity for capital expenditures without tax increases, and unless there is a significant tax increase, a continued deficit is forecast. There is no room to cut expenditures, she added.
The update brought a mixed reaction from the crowd. The topic of governance was raised and people began to question whether Bridgetown should consider the same direction the Town of Springhill has taken in dissolving.
Resident Steve Raftery pointed out that the boundaries of Bridgetown were set 100 years ago and the true community of Bridgetown goes beyond these boundaries and that perhaps it’s time to bring the entire community under one umbrella.
Boundaries create conflicts and missed opportunities, he said. And then he challenged people to give him one solid reason why these boundaries needed to remain in place.
The conversation then turned to the possibility of the town boundaries expanding to include the outlying communities that are within the county boundaries, but part of Bridgetown’s extended community.
It was noted that any move to dissolve from its town status, or expand town boundaries, would require research and extensive negotiations with the Municipality of Annapolis. Timothy Habinski, an Annapolis county councillor, spoke up and said that even though he lives in the county, he thinks of Bridgetown as his new hometown.
While he cannot speak on behalf of the county, he said he personally is committed to the future of this community and believes his council is respectful of the decisions that are now facing Bridgetown.
Others pointed to amalgamation models such as Queen’s, and Canso and a few expressed frustration at the lack of direction being offered at this time. Turner told the group that there are various models to consider.
“We have an idea of what’s feasible, there are ideas being floated around and we are looking at various options,” she said. “There are lessons to be learned from each process and we are looking at each model. Every situation is different. Council needs to hear what may or may not be acceptable to you before making any decision.”
People are invited to attend the upcoming council meeting on March 25 to learn more and offer input and suggestions.