SAINT JOHN N.B. -- Amalgamation is back on the table in New Brunswick.

The provincial government's bid to once again study local governance reform this week will also look at combining surrounding towns and nearby cities into single municipalities.

Merging New Brunswick's three largest urban areas (Moncton, Saint John, and Fredericton) with each of its neighbouring communities has been debated for decades. It's never come to fruition, but Premier Blaine Higgs said people should keep an open mind about the suggestion.

"I think it's something we need to consider in any area," said Higgs on Wednesday

As many as 25 municipal reform studies have been authored in New Brunswick since the 1960s.

"I think they're all around somewhere in Fredericton but they're not in action," said Saint John Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary on Thursday.

In 2011, the David Alward Progressive Conservative government tried to encourage communities to voluntarily share resources such as policing and waste management. The government of the day bristled at suggestions it was pushing amalgamations and repeatedly said it wasn't.

McAlary said the Blaine Higgs Tories will have to mandate amalgamations, especially in the three largest cities, if they truly want it to happen.

"(Smaller communities) are not going to give up their power and give it over to someone else unless somebody says they have to do it," she said, adding the political fallout of such a decision would be heavy.

Voluntary and mandatory mergers

The most recent city amalgamation in New Brunswick happened Jan. 1, 1995, when the former towns of Chatham and Newcastle merged with other nearby communities to create Miramichi. The amalgamation was forced by the Frank McKenna Liberal government and included legal challenges.

In 2014, the town of Tracadie-Sheila combined with 18 local service districts to form the Regional Municipality of Tracadie. The amalgamation was driven locally and not forced by government. The regional municipality is now branded as Tracadie.

Elsewhere in the Maritimes, the Halifax Regional Municipality marked 25 years of existence last month.

Premier Higgs said New Brunswick should consider the size of its local government in comparison to Nova Scotia.

"We have 104 local governments, we have 236 (local service districts), for a total of 340," he said. "Nova Scotia has 50 municipal entities."

The New Brunswick government has not set dates for when virtual consultations will be held on the topic of municipal reform. A final report is expected by the end of 2021.