FREDERICTON (GNB) – The provincial government introduced legislation today that would lead to the most significant changes to the local governance system in 60 years.

An Act Respecting Local Governance Reform would make significant changes to the Local Governance Act, the Real Property Tax Act, the Community Planning Act and the Regional Service Delivery Act.

“We took more than a year to get to this point because this is such a major undertaking and now we are putting in place the legislative framework to make these important changes a reality,” said Local Government and Local Governance Reform Minister Daniel Allain. “Without embarking on our modernization plan, more regions of the province will lose key services, infrastructure and economic development opportunities. We need to act now to ensure a better future for our province and that is exactly what we are doing.”

The engagement process, which started last spring and wrapped up in October, focused on four key pillars: local governance structure, regional collaboration, land use planning, and financing the system. Hundreds of people took part in virtual and in-person sessions, sent in briefs, completed an online survey or contacted the local governance reform team. A green paper was released in April, followed by a What we heard document in early September. On Nov. 18, the anticipated white paper was released, Working together for vibrant and sustainable communities.

Currently the province has 340 local government entities but the plan is to reduce these to 90 including 78 local governments and 12 rural districts.

The bill would enable the reduction of the entities by setting a process for municipal restructurings that would be undertaken in 2022 and become effective Jan. 1, 2023.

Allain said the changes would eliminate the democratic deficit for about 30 per cent of the population who do not currently have a say in how their local area is governed. Elections would be held where needed for new councils, councillors, and advisory committees in November 2022.

“I thank all four municipal associations which have been instrumental in getting us here and I know they will continue to play an integral role as the reforms begin in earnest early in 2022,” said Allain. “We also want to refocus our efforts on supporting our cities, downtowns and industrial parks as part of this plan.”

The legislation introduced today would also remove barriers for future restructurings by allowing the provincial government to retain responsibility for local roads when an unincorporated area is annexed to a local government; removing the requirement for plebiscites; and requiring that local governments maintain differential tax rates to reflect differences in access to services.

There would also be flexibility to allow local governments to set the non-residential tax rate within a range of 1.4 to 1.7 times the residential rate. Also, the deadline for completing the annual audited financial statement would be extended by a month to April 1.

Changes would also take place in the composition of boards, in response to the restructurings. Weighted voting would be introduced to improve the democratic balance and operation of the boards. Service and reporting standards would also be introduced to support accountability.

All communities would be required to have local land use plans in place by 2027, and these plans would need to be updated at least every 10 years.

The mandate of the regional service commissions would be expanded to include economic development, community development, regional tourism promotion, regional transportation, and cost sharing on regional recreational infrastructure.

The bill would also reset the date for the next municipal general election to May 2026.

Most provisions of the act would come into force on Jan. 1, 2023, however, transitional provisions would come into effect upon Royal Assent in order to enable the transition work to begin early in January 2022.