Officials with the Municipality of the County of Antigonish anticipate a busy 2017, much like the one just completed.
Warden Russell Boucher and Clerk Glenn Horne reflected and looked forward in a recent interview.
“In general, the year was excellent,” Boucher said.
Noting the hard work of administration, he touched on the continuing growth in the rural municipality.
“We are still in the bottom 15 per cent, in regard to taxes for residential, which is very good, and we are the best in the province in regard to commercial [taxes] – we have the best rate,” Boucher said.
“We are proactive in regard to getting subdivisions in gear, so that houses can be built, so that assessments can be attained from those, and the money put back in to continue to build and to grow.”
He noted uniform assessment has almost doubled over the past decade or so, which “allows us substantial economic stability.”
“And, with that stability, it allows us to be a little more aggressive with our plans and development,” Boucher said.
He talked about the growing commercial base along the new stretch of twinned Highway 104 running through the municipality, including at Exits 32 and 33.
Boucher described the Exit 33 development, which includes a Shell gas station, Tim Horton’s and Needs Express as “busy, busy, busy.”
“We anticipate seeing further growth at both 33, right down here at the Shell station, and 32 at Nova Landing. We anticipate seeing growth at both of those next year ,” Horne said.
Boucher noted municipal officials are also exploring options in the area of Lower South River, at Exit 34.
“It is a very quick turnoff – right into the main commercial area there. They are, potentially, going to end up as a major area for development,” he said.
Let the sunshine in
In 2016, as part of its green agenda, the municipality installed a 100-panel, 25-kilowatt system solar energy system at its Beech Hill Road administration building.
“It has been in operation since July of this year . As of early December, that system has produced enough power to power 210 homes for a day,” Horne said.
“So, when we are fully engaged through the week, when everyone is here and we are using all the power and our AV system is on – the whole thing – we are running a substantial part of our operations from solar.
“When we are not here, on the weekends, we are actually feeding back into the grid,” he added.
Horne said the system, so far, “has proven to be quite valuable for us.”
“And, we are using it as a bit of pilot – to see if there are opportunities for us to be putting solar [energy] systems on other municipal infrastructure buildings,” he added.
Of the 100 panels, 90 are positioned on the south side of the roof, while the other 10 occupy the north end.
“The traditional wisdom is that you put panels on the south side because they get more sun through the day,” Horne said.
He noted they put 10 on the north side for two reasons.
“One, if they were all on the south, you wouldn’t know that we had anything here, because you can’t see it from the road, so we put 10 on the front,” Horne said.
“But, also, to see what the differential is between north and south facing panels because, if it is only, say, a very minor differential in the power generation, then we can start putting these panels on places where we wouldn’t traditionally put them and realize that the power generation is whatever – five, six, 10 per cent lower, rather than 50 per cent lower, so it is still worth us doing it.”
Late last year, the municipality and Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Nation unveiled a Community Economic Development Initiative (CEDI).
“It is a very nice milestone for the municipality,” Boucher said.
He called the newly-launched partnership “a learning experience” for both communities.
“We have had one major meeting so far, which was absolutely wonderful from all aspects. If we continue that, we know that it will be a successful entity between the two communities,” Boucher said.
“We get to know one another better and we get to do stuff together.”
One of the partners in this initiative is the Eastern-Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN), which continues its growth.
“ESREN has highlighted outreach to First Nations as one of their priorities for their initial, inaugural strategic plan,” Horne said.
“We have been a big partner in assessing what that pillar will look like.”
Horne expanded on the county’s membership in ESREN.
“The REN is a relatively new organization and broader regional models than we have worked with in the past, and I think we are really hopeful for some success there,” he said.
As for ESREN’s aforementioned strategic plan, he added “it has got a lot of promise.”
“Another strength that it brings is that there are other RENs that are reflecting the strategic priorities of other regions throughout the province, and all of the RENs, together, are starting to cooperate and work together more, which again brings more promise to that regional economic business development model,” Horne said.
“If you just take a look at their business plan, and they have got some different things around asset management, around port development – that all shine a light on some very important gaps, right now, in our local economy.
“They are only a year in, really – John [Beaton, ESREN CEO] has only been there since February ; they have done a lot of work so far and we are quite interested to see where it goes from there,” he added.
Membership in ESREN, which includes other municipalities in the Strait region, along with its evolving and growing relationship with the Town of Antigonish, are key components for Antigonish County.
“We definitely have been fortunate to have such close neighbours – on the same wavelength on a lot of different projects – and we will continue to do that,” Boucher said.
“We feel that it is not just sister ship in the Town of Antigonish, but also in all other municipal units. We are being more collaborative with the systems that we have – to enhance them – and also new ones that are coming on stream.”
Horne talked about ‘virtual city hall,’ which he explained is an extension of our Diamond Municipal [Solutions] system.”
“A number of years ago – probably about five or six years ago – the nine municipal units of the Strait area came together and purchased that [Diamond] system,” he said.
“We are working with that same cohort of municipalities today to take the next step in the evolution of that system, in providing what is referred to as ‘virtual city hall’ to our residents.
“This is an online platform, where residents can come and log in and see all of their tax accounts, all of their utility accounts; basically, do all of their interactions with the municipality from an on-line platform,” Horne added.
The clerk noted the county is also working with a quartet of municipalities from Nova Scotia’s South Shore and Valley “to explore potential renewable energy partnerships.”
“Really, from Yarmouth to CBRM, we recognize that the future of municipal government is working in partnership and working in collaboration with other municipal units and also other organizations that are not municipal units,” Horne said.
“So, we are putting our best foot forward to identify opportunities and build relationships that will be to the benefit of our residents.”
Change on tap
The past year in the municipality also included the implementation of water metering.
“We are pleased,” Horne said of the process, which he called “a large overdue project.”
“Typically, when the municipality does projects, once we have identified what they are and what needs to be done, for the most part, the entire exercise is outsourced.
“It was a much larger, labour-intensive project than is typical for the municipality,” he added.
Horne noted municipal water utility and public works staffers were “fully involved” throughout the summer in delivering the initiative.
“We got the value in installing the water meters, which has been quite well covered. But, in addition to that, we saw an opportunity and updated a lot of our older records,” he said.
For example, there is now a GPS location for all water shut-offs.
“We have taken the time and, actually, replaced old, faulty and deteriorated water shut-offs and other associated municipal infrastructure, so a lot of those pieces are more modern and up to date,” Horne said.
He added the metering provides the municipality with “a better ability to manage our water system.”
“We can identify leaks earlier; we can ensure that our rates are most appropriate for what’s being used,” he said.
“It will also allow us to know, exactly, what’s purchased or produced and what’s sold and, if there is a difference, we can target it and address it.
“It gives us a lot of levers to better manage our system; whereas, before, we managed our system as best we could, but we just didn’t have the information to be able to do it as effectively as we could,” Horne added.
In 2016, the municipality used a creative way to get the message out about what it does, launching a five-part video series aimed “to increase awareness of municipal government,” particularly the programs and services it provides.
“They got really, really heavy response,” Boucher said, noting the vignettes garnered approximately 45,000 hits on social media.
He added feedback has been great.
Boucher noted the vignettes reflect everything the county has to offer.
“And, plus, the operation – the people who work for the county and what their jobs are, and all that.
“I think it has been a really great idea,” he added.
On that note, he added praise for administration and staff.
“In all aspects of running the county, they have been excellent, as they have all other years,” Boucher said.
“Council is very thankful for that and also proud of the fact that we do have employees of such high calibre; they come to work every day, come to work hard and they put their hours in and we are very thankful for that.”
When asked about priorities in 2017, Boucher said “one of the biggest ones” is work on a new sewer system.
“We are continuing to look, in combination with the Town [of Antigonish], or on our own, whichever way that it ends up going, for a new one that we can be more comfortable with,” he added.
Boucher noted the municipality knows it is something “that is going to happen down the road.”
“The studies are being done, and we are hoping that those studies will be finished this year … and we can plan … that we can say ‘OK, in two years’ time, we are going to have to get at this,’” he said.
“We are doing all the preliminary studies, but we are also seeing what are the advantages and disadvantages of all kinds of different views as to how we are going to handle that situation.”
Horne said the municipality, over the next couple months, “will be developing a better sense of particular projects that will be undertaken for the next three years.”
“The capital planning process that we are into, right now, will better enable us to capitalize on funding opportunities that come from federal and provincial governments, which we understand will be coming, particularly from the federal government.
“I anticipate that we will see a number of water projects, as part of that plan. I can’t speak to what they are – right now – but you will see a number of projects that will renew some areas of our water systems and also extend areas of our water system,” he added.
He noted there will also be individual sewer-related initiatives.
“That will go to assisting, maintaining the fringe area sewer system, making sure that system is as tight as it can be, and continues to serve the needs of our residents,” he said.
For more about the Municipality of the County of Antigonish, www.antigonishcounty.ns.ca