MAYOR SAYS GRIT CUTS AND SUPERHIGHWAYS WILL KILL SCENIC ROUTES AND TURN NB INTO A DRIVE THROUGH PROVINCE
(originally published Apr. 7/2009 in the Aquinian)
Randy Smith stands on his deck and smiles at the sight of his village’s ferry forging its way along the Saint John River Valley, through choppy waves that reflect the orange hue of the rising sun. He says it’s a beautiful dawn for Gagetown, even if the village’s days may be numbered.
“I’m gonna miss that sound of the engine kicking up in the morning,” the mayor said softly. “It’s like losing the rooster’s crowing, as silly as that sounds.”
He’ll have a far different noise to wake up to before the end of April, when government funding for those ferries dries up, a decision the community has been protesting in rallies at the village’s town hall and protests in front of the legislature for weeks.
“It was a tough decision, there’s no question. But unfortunately, cuts are necessary in times like these,” said Victor Boudreau, minister of finance. He added running the ferries for free day and night costs $1.5 million annually, and it would take another $12 million to give them a much needed overhaul in the years ahead. Boudreau said those cuts won’t leave the village stranded- without them it adds up to far too much, especially when so many millions were spent on the nearby highway, adding only 40km to the route Gagetown drivers take to town. “There are alternate routes, otherwise we wouldn’t take the ferries out. With the hundreds of millions we’ve spent on our highways, we have to set our priorities.”
But Smith questions those priorities, because the loss of the ferries on those waters will ripple into every corner of the community.
“As those ferries ran up and down the valley for decades they became interwoven in our economy,” he said. “Our fishing village is like a house cards, and it’ll fall without them.”
Smith said that economy will topple because it hinges on resources from the other side of the river, brought over by the ferries. The village’s doctors need patients from that other side to justify staying put- patients who board those boats to come to their checkups. He said Gagetown’s lone gas station, grocery store, pottery shops, boutiques and textile outlets will all fold like a bad hand without tourists. Even though those guests can reach the community via the new highway, in less than 40 extra kilometers, Smith said those lanes are more of a dead end than an alternate route- drivers, investors, and customers could travel to Ormocto on them far easier, rather than taking the literal extra mile to little Gagetown.
“Within 10 years Gagetown will cease to be a village without the ferries,” he said, adding that significant Korean investors have already pulled funds from construction of a golf course in Cherry Hill. “Who’ll move here without a doctors office and businesses? It’ll just be houses, we’ll loose our status.”
Kevin Breen is a retired teacher who’s owned one of those houses in Gagetown for 31 years. He said the village’s shops depend on customers who happen by in the summer, but those boutiques don’t see the same boost in the winter.
“The mayor’s gonna hate me saying this, but it’s overkill running the ferries all day everyday since the highway and the bridge went up nearby 6 years ago,” he said.
But Breen said gutting the ferries completely will kill the community because they’re more than a link to the outside world for businesses- they’re part of Gagetown’s way of life.
“You can stand on that ferry, look over the side and see eagles, beavers, an osprey’s nest a few feet away,” he said. “Osprey’s are the only birds, other than humming birds, that can stop in flight. When you can see that stop, see them do a 50 foot dive to catch a fish up close, that’s quite a sight.”
“The kind of tourism that could bring is a big opportunity lost by the government,” he added. “It would cost millions to build this kind of infrastructure on the Saint John river, here it is sitting there and they want to let it go. Without these back roads, little villages, scenic routes, you’ve only got the highway- and it’s gonna turn New Brunswick into a drive through province.”
Gagetown’s residents aren’t the only ones worried about the path our province is on, especially after last month’s budget was tabled- a budget that will eliminate at least 700 civil service jobs, instill two year wage freezes for the workers that are left, and cut several other services, including the funding to Gagetown’s ferries.
Tom Mann is the executive director of the New Brunswick Union, which is mostly made up of those troubled provincial employees. The union has been very vocal about how the budget will not only affect its members, but the services those employees provide the rest of the province.
“We call it a false hope budget, it’s tackling the problem from the absolute wrong direction,” he said in his downtown Fredericton office. He paused, his eyes drifting while he twisted a red paper clip tighter between his fingers, as if trying to keep it all from coming undone. “The rest of the world is trying to kick start the economy, and you do that by spending. It’s ironic that they’re doing opposite here, reducing taxes in a regressive fashion and really hurting the regular New Brunswicker from being able to shelter themselves.”
He said there are many alternatives to cuts in taxes and services. Mann said public auto insurance could provide ‘a shot in the arm’ to the provincial economy, by taking the half billion dollars grossed in profits by private corporations since the Grits were elected, and funneling it into government services. He said New Brunswick has lost at least $180 million since toll highways were disbanded, and reinstating them would be an easy source of revenue.
“We’re the only province in Atlantic Canada where we don’t pay tolls,” he said. “It is a political hot item, but you’d like to think, given dire circumstances that we’re in, that something other than political agendas would be considered.”
“We spent millions on those toll highways in the 90s, and even more taking them off,” Boudreau said. “I’m not convinced spending more to put them on again is smart fiscally. New Brunswickers say they want to pay less tax, not more, and the budget we tabled will see the largest single income tax reduction in the province’s history.”
Smith said similar tolls could be paid on the Gagetown ferries to help them compete with those highways. But his views aren’t completely in line with the NBU’s- in fact, as they took it upon themselves to ‘speak up for the little guy’ he had to wonder what their agenda might be, especially after recent rumours of rampant between them and other unions like CUPE.
“I’m glad their speaking up, because information is power and that’s what they’re providing,” he said. “But it also makes me cautious and wonder what their agenda might be, why do they feel compelled to be so vocal?”
During last month’s contract negotiations, the province offered the major unions a two year hold on the wage freeze, so that they could receive more money up-front to weather the low end of the offer. The NBU accepted, causing members from other unions like CUPE (which declined the offer) to declare they had sold out to the very government they are now so vocally opposing.
“We didn’t accept because there was no room for monetary negotiation in this contact, and we don’t want to be at the table without the ability to bargain,” said Daniel Legere, president of CUPE NB. “I can’t speak for the NBU, but this isn’t a time for fighting between unions- we have to work together to speak up, because our government doesn’t seem to realize that it’s not just what you save in taxes that attracts people to a province, it’s the services provided.”
Boudreau said he more than realizes what economic state the province is in, and added that services aren’t the sole solution to those problems.
“We have to show restraint in government, find inefficiencies and cut them,” he said.
But Mann said restraint is the last thing the province needs in times like these, that the government should to be bold in its thinking as much as its spending.
“Isn’t necessity the motherhood of invention, and isn’t it necessary right now?” he said. “No one’s satisfied with the status quo, yet we keep getting status quo solutions. New Brunswickers don’t feel entitled to be a part of the debate, because they’ve been told to let the free market reign. But that obviously hasn’t worked out so shit hot for us… someone has to speak up.”
And as Smith sat on his deck and watched the ferry creep toward shore, for perhaps the very last time, he said that notion to speak up, to be heard, couldn’t be stronger. He added that Boudreau has been very willing to meet with him and discuss the issue, even though they still disagree on how to solve it. But Smith said one way or another that will change, either with a compromise of running the ferries seasonally or somehow finding help from the private sector.
“I understand my ferry is one of the weaker links,” he said. “But cuts are easy, why not try to create new solutions? I want to be optimistic, but the problem with that is you get disappointed every now and then. Pessimists never get let down, because they’re already there. I’d rather look toward potential solutions.”
Photos submitted by Randy Smith Dr. Ron Dykeman