Regional service commissions – another train wreck?

A few months ago, the government of New Brunswick released its plan for reforming local governance. This has been a long time coming and it appears that fiscal pressures have finally forced action. While problems in local governance and cost-sharing have long been recognized, political resistance to change has prevented action until now.

The Province has a significant and growing debt, and, given stagnant economic growth, there is little room for optimism. While a reversal of the corporate and income tax cuts of a few years ago, plus a rise in the HST, might balance the books for now, those measures will provide only a brief respite for the Province’s fiscal managers. The main driver in the decision to move forward with the formation of the Regional Service Commissions was, I am sure,  the desire to off-load certain costs to property owners, especially those in rural areas, where villages and local service districts have relied upon the province to provide local services at below cost. This reorganization provides an opportunity for the Province to eventually free itself of a cost burden. Moreover, the property tax hikes that are coming down the road (especially for rural residents) will be the laid at the feet of local governments rather than the Province.

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Text of the Ryan Report or “I can barely hear you, Mr. Levesque.”

Below, you can find the text of the Ryan Report (Shawn Graham and Atcon). This has been uploaded from the PDF version released by the Commissioner’s Office. There are some spacing and formatting issues that might make reading a bit difficult, however, some might find this format preferable to a PDF. I am not sure why reports such as these are released only in PDF format – that would seem to be an approach that limits access to the information.

There are at least two different issues here: the conflict of interest (Shawn Graham knew or should have known that his father had an association with Atcon) and the decision to provide a loan guarantee to Atcon. The latter was made against the advice of senior civil servants. While you can argue that the government may from time to time offer such guarantees or loans, here the risk to the taxpayer was unusually high. In such circumstances there should be an obligation of the elected members of the government and civil servants to raise the risk issue in a public manner.

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Text of the Penobsquis report and comments

Recently, the Mining Commissioner of the Province of New Brunswick released his report on the complaint by residents of the Penobsquis area regarding damage to their property they claimed was the result of mining activities by the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

As is detailed below, the Commissioner’s report deals mainly with a land subsidence claim put forward by some residents. Water damage claims were withdrawn – some reasons for that withdrawal are given here. The whole story is quite an indictment of the Province’s apparent complete lack of regard for the concerns of its citizens. In short, the Province has failed to show that it ‘has the people’s back’. That, in fact, is the most alarming aspect of this decades-old story. I am not in a position to evaluate the damage claims made by Penobsquis residents, but the’ hands-off’, ‘let the lawyers decide’ attitude of successive Provincial governments is chilling.

The text of the Commissioner’s report is below. This text was formatted for this website from a PDF version of the report. Some errors may have been introduced during this formatting – for those, I apologize (please send me an email if you find errors that mislead).

I am not a mining expert and cannot comment on the technical issues here. But I will make the following comments:

1. The Mining Commissioner appears to be a lawyer and there is no evidence that he has sufficient technical backgound to judge the merits of the evidence before him. Given the powers of the Commissioner, it seems to me that it would be preferable (and more fair) if the Commissioner had considerable technical backgound in the issues at hand, but had access to legal advice where needed. Here we have the opposite – in fact, it is worse than the opposite as there is no evidence that the Commissioner had access to any independent technical advice.

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How New Brunswick spends its health care dollars

In a previous post, we saw that if provincial government spending in New Brunswick over the past few decades is adjusted for inflation, non-health care spending has not increased since the mid-90s. Rising health care expenditures are largely responsible for spending increases since then. And how are those health care dollars being spent? The numbers below suggest that NB is not doing as well as some other provinces with respect to hospital operations costs; that might mean there are some potential savings to be had there. But I expect those ‘savings’ to be reallocated to other health care spending issues (e.g. wait-time reductions). The goal should not be to reduce spending by a certain amount, or keep increases at a particular rate, but to improve services while spending the same proportion of tax revenue.

Let’s start with a re-post of this chart (using data from Statistics Canada and CIHI’s National Health Expenditure Database), where spending (EXP) and revenue (REV) patterns for the past few decades are adjusted for inflation:

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