Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry's decision to build one provincial correctional facility in a central location instead of one each in Cumberland and Antigonish Counties will, according to the minister, save Nova Scotia taxpayers approximately $5.5 million dollars in construction costs and an estimated $1.7 million annually in operating costs. Seems fairly straightforward, don't you think? Think again.
As is the case in any issue, the devil is in the details. The facts of the matter make this issue less clear than it is purported to be by the newly minted NDP government in Halifax.
First, the minister must compare oranges to oranges. The tentative plan for the two replacement facilities was for one 100-bed facility and one 50-bed jail. The newly proposed single facility is a 100 bed jail. Of course it will cost less — it’s smaller!
Second, the Cumberland Correctional Facility has been an important part of the local economy in Cumberland County for over 100 years. It has provided well-paying jobs that, up to now, have not disappeared at a moment's notice, it has provided a skilled workforce that has lived here and shopped here as well as the other economic spin-offs of the facility. It has provided stability during times of local layoff as industries come and go. With the stroke of a pen, Minister Landry and his cabinet colleagues have stripped all of these benefits from Cumberland County.
To add insult to injury, within days of announcing that Cumberland County was out of the mix as the location for the replacement facility, Minister Landry was gleefully telling the New Glasgow News that “this is a good thing, it could be a great news story” as he extolled the virtues of locating the facility in the heart of Pictou County, which he just happens to represent in the House of Assembly. He told The News that “having a jail there would mean extra police in the area — and will also mean bringing a skilled workforce into the area who will have to live here and shop here, as well as the economic spin-offs of the jail.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It's familiar because Minister Landry is playing politics. He's playing fast and loose with the economy of Cumberland County. He and his cabinet colleagues have incredibly, but very obviously, thrown first time Cumberland North MLA Brian Skabar under the bus. It would seem that they have done the math, read the polls and concluded that although Mr. Skabar snatched the riding from the old line parties for the first time in history - history will not repeat itself. They have written off these ridings as unwinable, irrelevant and ignorable. By the way, that bus has just left Cumberland County and is on schedule to arrive in Pictou County any time now. Mr. Landry says that he has the interests of all Nova Scotians at heart in his decision making. This is hardly the case. Instead of concentrating on making the pie bigger, Minister Landry is simply serving two slices of the same old pie to his friends and neighbors.
I believe, as do my municipal colleagues in Cumberland County, that the very reasons touted by the Minister (essentially that in relation to the rest of Nova Scotia we are remote - not central) for not locating the replacement facility here are the best reasons why there MUST continue to be a provincial correctional facility in Cumberland County. We are approximately 90 minutes, in good weather, from Pictou County. It hardly seems right that the folks who need access to the Justice system in Cumberland County, and in doing so must either visit or reside in a correctional facility, would have to endure the additional time, risk and expense of that trip. Most Nova Scotians will see the sense in my argument. Just imagine navigating both the Cobequid Pass and Mount Thom over the winter months, on a regular basis, just to visit a client or a loved one.
Then there is the issue of transporting inmates from Court in Cumberland County to the new Correctional Facility in Pictou County. It would seem that the time, risk and expense of this activity, while significant, has been completely ignored. If you were one of the folks stranded on the Cobequid Pass last winter for 12 or more hours, how would you have felt knowing that maybe, just maybe, there was a Sheriff's van full of convicted criminals stranded somewhere close to you? Perhaps we could add another message for the new electronic signs now in place on the Pass: - “Inmates at large – expect criminal activity next 50 km”.
Finally, Minister Landry's site selection "process" is questionable at best. The Minister would have Nova Scotians believe that the site selection process is ongoing through a thoughtfully considered, well documented approach. I can only conclude that this is not the case. Repeated calls for the study or even for its terms of reference have gone unanswered. In fact a review of local and regional media articles reveals that municipal units throughout Pictou and Colchester Counties are lining up to make pitches to the minister for the facility. I have no issue with those municipal units. What I do have issue with is that many, if not all, of them will offer free land to the province for the facility. Nova Scotia's municipalities are already strapped for cash. They can ill afford to be surrendering assets at well below market value to any organization, let alone the Province of Nova Scotia. This is just plain offensive. The Province, through the Municipal Government Act, precludes municipal units from offering incentives to industries to locate within their boundaries but apparently does not mind unloading the financial obligation of land acquisition on to the back of its struggling municipalities when it is to the benefit of the Province.
There are just too many things wrong with this picture. There are presently correctional facilities in the "corners' of the province, namely, Cape Breton, Yarmouth and Cumberland County. With Minister Landry's plan there will be facilities in two corners and Pictou County. He told the News in New Glasgow that he will make an impartial decision that makes the most financial sense for the province, despite his own preferences. The economic impacts on Cumberland County were considered by the minister only as he told his own constituents how much he would like to see those same economic impacts in Pictou County.
What's next Mr. Premier? An RFP to move the provincial welcome centre in Fort Lawrence to the toll booth, maybe Truro? It seems that’s where this province begins these days.
If this centralized decision making model continues to be used by the present NDP government, we in Cumberland County will never, ever get another stick of provincial infrastructure. I submit that the increased social costs and decreased economic spin-offs that will occur as a result of the relocation the Cumberland Correctional Facility will far outweigh the unsubstantiated cost savings that Minister Landry hangs his hat on. I challenge Premier Dexter and Minister Landry to prove me wrong. I implore them to defer this decision and commission a professional independent economic impact study. I encourage the citizens of Cumberland County and indeed all fair minded Nova Scotians to write to Premier Dexter, Minister Landry and their MLA’s to make the same request.
We will never be the geographic centre of Nova Scotia, but we always be proud Nova Scotians - even if we have to pay $4 dollars to visit the rest of you and $4 to come home!
Councillor Robert Bird, Amherst NS