Charter Weekend: The Consultation Continues

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I begin with a confession: I did not attend Saturday’s public consultation session on the CBRM Charter nor did I watch the livestream of the event.

At least, I didn’t watch it on Saturday — I did watch it on Monday and I also read all the submissions posted on the CBRM website plus the submission thrown in by District 10 Councilor Darren Brusckschwaiger during the meeting on behalf of the Property Valuation Services Corporation (PVSC), on the board of which he currently sits.

There were eight presenters on Saturday, but since two discussed the same subject (equalization), I think I will divide this report into seven sections. My plan is not to provide an exhaustive account of the presentations (although my notes run to a potentially certifiable 5,200 words). You can watch the meeting and read the presentations yourselves. I will just recount some highlights and, where applicable, add some additional information, ask some additional questions or throw in a reference to the television series Bewitched (wait for it.)

 

Self evaluation

First up was Douglas Foster.

Douglas Foster

Douglas Foster

Foster was director of planning for the CBRM from 1995 to 2012, at which point he turned 65, was forced to retire, took his case to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission — and lost.

He subsequently worked in urban planning for the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Newfoundland and, in fact, cited his experience there during his presentation on Saturday. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Foster, who now works for New Dawn Enterprises, began by making it clear he was speaking on his own behalf, then used his allotted 10 minutes to argue that the CBRM should take back responsibility for property assessments from the PVSC:

I think CBRM has all the technical capacity that you would need. You have an enviable GIS [Geographic Information System]…You’ve got talent. I think the PVSC system costs about $1.36 million [annually]. I’m quite certain CBRM could do it for a lot less. The caveat is that I think CBRM should get away from valuation as a basis for assessment and simply apply flat rates on household units, frontage, perhaps lot areas and building footprints. These elements are easily determinable.

As someone who spent a ridiculous amount of time last year learning about property taxes (you can follow my progress here and here and here and here and here — when I say “ridiculous” amount of time, I’m not kidding), my ears perked up. In fact, I called Foster on Monday because I wanted more detail than he had time to provide on Saturday.

The knock on property taxes generally is that they are regressive — in other words, they hit poor people harder than rich people. In the hierarchy of taxes, they fall well below income taxes (which are considered the most progressive), ranking even below consumption taxes like the HST/GST. In their 2014 report for the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM), academics Harry Kitchen and Enid Slack argued property valuation was a less regressive form of property tax than the type of flat fees Foster is recommending.

But Foster, while agreeing that property taxes are generally regressive, argues they will not be going away anytime soon — municipalities have never had much luck convincing provincial and federal governments to give them a share of the income tax — and that they could be less regressive than they currently are in Nova Scotia.

 

CAP

The problem here, he says, is twofold: first, the province’s Capped Assessment Program (CAP), introduced in 2001 to protect homeowners from sharp spikes in their property assessments. Initially, it applied to people whose assessments had jumped at least 15%, but in 2008, the program was tied to inflation — and inflation has been very low since then. Critics say it has simply become a way to reduce property taxes, and an inherently unfair way, because people living in identical homes on the same street can pay wildly different tax bills because one family has been in residence for years and the other just moved in.

Another problem with the current system is that PVSC does not send assessors to visit properties but instead bases valuations on building permits and sales data. Foster calls building permits a “tax on honesty,” because people who apply for them pay extra tax while people who build without permits don’t. As for sales data, in a market as “soft” as the CBRM, there is often insufficient data for comparison, leaving the PVSC to compare data from “similar” neighborhoods elsewhere.

Foster argues that flat rates for say, sewer, based on property frontage might be regressive but would at least be transparent and fair: if your property’s frontage is 75 feet, you would pay less for sewer than your neighbor whose property frontage is 150 feet. Moreover, Foster says municipalities already have the power, under the Municipal Government Act (MGA), to levy flat rates, although “a few more could be added.”

 

Fox and hens?

Response from councilors was mixed. District 12 Councilor Jim MacLeod feared council would end up adjudicating tax disputes, something he recalled (with an almost visible shudder) from his days as a councilor in the City of Sydney.

District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger

District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger

But it was Bruckschwaiger who mounted the most spirited defense of the status quo. He’s been on the PVSC board since the beginning of 2017 and also sits on PVSC’s audit, risk and finance committee. If you’re curious as to the kind of matters the board discusses (I was), here’s a sample from the March 2017 meeting:

Russ Adams reviewed the ERM [Enterprise Risk Management] Maturity Model–the ERM program started in the spring of 2015 and at that time PVSC’s position was reactive/tactical. Senior management has recently reviewed the risks and from a senior management and board level we are very proactive and PVSC’s current position on the continuum is strategic.

The ERM policy has been updated and PVSC values now reflect the language of “virtues”.

I think somebody must have won a bet on that one — how much business jargon can you fit into a single paragraph? “Continuum” really impressed me — and reminded me of something. From my childhood. It took a moment, but then I remembered: the atmospheric continuum! From the sitcom Bewitched. And because we live in the magical age of the interwebs, I found it referenced in a synopsis of episode 224:

Endora shows up and has an argument with Darrin about taking Tabitha to the Unicorn Handicap, a race of unicorns held on the other side of the atmospheric continuum. When Darrin refuses to let Tabitha go, Endora changes him into a ten-year old boy.

It doesn’t say whether the values of unicorns reflect the language of virtues, although I’m guessing they would have to. But I digress, like, even more than usual…

Bruckschwaiger suggested that the CBRM assessing properties and issuing tax bills would be like “the fox looking after the hen house.” Foster pointed out that Edmonton and Calgary both assess properties and collect taxes as does the province of PEI on behalf of all its municipalities, but Bruckschwaiger remained unmoved and presented council with the following fact sheet on behalf of the PVSC. I will let you do your own assessment of its contents:

Darren Bruckschwaiger - January 20, 2018 re PVSC

 

Stepping up

Janet McGillen of Gabarus was up next, and those of us who want to see more and better organized public consultation in the CBRM could be forgiven for thinking we had conjured her, like a genie from a bottle: before moving to Cape Breton, McGillen was a Public Consultation Coordinator with the City of Toronto. Yes, we have in our midst someone who spent seven years coordinating the City of Toronto’s 700 volunteers.

Janet McGillen

Janet McGillen

McGillen made a very eloquent case for expanding the public consultation sessions beyond the council chamber to encourage more citizens to participate:

This Council Chamber is a pretty intimidating setting and not everyone is able to express themselves in such a setting. But that doesn’t make their contribution any less valuable.

At this point, the only other option for people, is to submit their thoughts in writing. But that is not, nor should it be, the only other option available. In an inclusive public consultation process, every possible option for participation must be available.

McGillen suggested using community volunteers to help organize more informal round-table discussions at venues throughout the CBRM. All that would be required, she said, would be a “couple of council members or staff to facilitate discussion, a staff member to act as recorder, and community volunteers to promote the event, deal with logistics and act as hosts.”

Don’t rush the process, she urged, but don’t delay it either:

We all know what happens to good ideas and best intentions. Left unattended they wither and die.

McGillen then put her money where her mouth was and offered to help coordinate the volunteer groups who agreed to facilitate the public discussions, an offer District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie jumped on:

This is somebody who has come right out to say, they want to be a part of it and if we need some coordination help, she’s willing to jump in and help. Not only that, there’s obviously a background there too. This is what we have… this capital, this intelligence that we can utilize,…this experience that we can bring [to] the table. It’s not just the Jim Guys and the Tom Urbaniaks, it’s individuals who are willing to put up their time, their experience and their know-how to help and I think that’s something that we should look at. I personally am going to host some meetings in my district and I hope all councilors will do the same.

 

Public doesn’t mean ‘polite’

David Papazian

David Papazian

The next presenter was David Papazian, who outed himself as another Torontonian while pointing out that he’s now lived as long in Cape Breton — 19 years — as he ever did in York Mills, where he grew up.

Papazian’s unorthodox presentation incorporated a fairy tale (which I presume he wrote himself) called,  Adventures in Container Land, followed by some sharp questions about the business plan for the Port of Sydney, the  potential effects of climate change on the international shipping industry and the wisdom of signing anything intended to last 99 years (the length of the lease Mayor Cecil Clarke hopes to sign with a port operator).

As Papazian pointed out, 99 years ago, the First World War had just ended. (He didn’t get to finish his thought, but I think his point was, anyone foolhardy enough to have signed a 99-year lease at that point, convinced they had just survived the “War to end all wars” and were looking at decades of untrammeled peace to come, would have been in for a rude shock just 20 years later.)

Papazian went over his 10 minutes and the Mayor moved to shut him down. Papazian responded grumpily (again, you can watch the video stream) and moved away from the mic before any councilor could ask a question. This was a loss. First, because I think the points he raised were valid. And second, because when you invite the public to participate, you can’t expect all participants will be uniformly upbeat and well behaved. Some people will be cranky. They are allowed to be cranky. You, as the chair of the meeting, must find a way to deal with that crankiness while extracting as much value as you can from the situation. (I bet Janet McGillen knows how to do that.)

 

Equalization

Gordon Sampson and Father Albert Maroun

Gordon Sampson and Father Albert Maroun, founding members of Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness (NSEF), appeared separately to make the case for including equalization in the CBRM charter.

Equalization is another subject I immersed myself in last year, so I’m not going to go into great detail here. I’ll just say that NSEF’s argument is that Nova Scotia does not give the CBRM — or other have-not municipalities — their fair share of the equalization money it receives each year from the federal government.

Properly funded equalization, the group argues, would allow the CBRM to provide services comparable to those enjoyed by residents of the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) at tax rates comparable to those charged by the HRM.

The two promised a higher profile for NSEF, which meets once a month in the Myles Burke Community Room at the Prince Street Sobeys in Sydney. There will be videos, there will be young people and, said Sampson, the group has interested Auditor General “Joe” Pickup (Michael’s evil twin?).

Father Maroun noted that he’d even worn his priest’s collar, which he doesn’t usually wear unless he’s “on Mass for Shut-Ins,” because he felt equalization was a “moral issue.” Sampson reminded Municipal Affairs Minister Derek Mombourquette that, as CBRM Councilor Derek Mombourquette, he had also belonged to NSEF.

Mombourquette said that his department is currently conducting a “fiscal review” as well as a review of the MGA and that while he’s “not convinced” equalization is part of the charter, he won’t shy away from discussing it and knows the problems the CBRM is confronting because he “lived it.”

 

Eskasoni

Steve Parsons

Steve Parsons

Steve Parsons, general manager of Eskasoni First Nation, presented next and you are going to have to watch the video because I completely fell down on the job on this one.

The problem is that I hear “Eskasoni” and immediately begin wondering why it is that Eskasoni, “the largest Mi’kmaq community in the world,” is in such dire financial straits while Membertou is thriving? I tried to listen to Parsons talk about Eskasoni’s business success stories, but all I can think of is the reserve’s dismal 75% child poverty rate.

And when I heard Parson’s say Eskasoni was “moving away from the Indian Act,” I found myself wondering what that meant — and thinking of some of the Facebook discussions I’ve followed in which some citizens of Eskasoni have expressed serious concerns about developments on their reserve.

What I’m saying is that Eskasoni is a subject I’m going to have to look into properly before I can add any information or make any allusions to Bewitched about anything I heard on Saturday.

 

Back in the box?

I’ve been curious to see Dannie Hanson, vice president of the Kennedy Group of Seafood Companies, in action ever since I read one of his missives in the Cape Breton Post.

Dannie Hanson

Dannie Hanson

I think he provided an interesting contrast to David Papazian on Saturday and proved something I’ve long suspected, which is that you can say just about anything you want in public as long as you wear a suit while you’re saying it. (Representing a group of companies that employs upwards of 600 people in peak season doesn’t hurt either.)

Hanson, who once served as an alderman in the City of Sydney, began by shamelessly sucking up to every politician in the room — the mayor, the council, the last council, Minister Mombourquette, Tory MLAs Alfie MacLeod, Eddie Orrell and Keith Bain — each and every one of them is doing a bang-up job and deserves our thanks and praise.

He then advised council that although they were “doing great,” he needed them to “get back in the box.”

I hadn’t realized council was kept in a box, so I lost a few minutes at this point wondering if he meant council was made up of vampires and if so, what were they doing out on a Saturday afternoon and why could I see their reflections in the chamber windows?

When I tuned back in, Hanson was elaborating on what council was to do in the box:

[G]et back in that box for a while and look at your great accomplishments and see how you can finish them off. Okay?

What council shouldn’t do, he argued, was put any “big, big issues” in the Charter. He didn’t actually name any of these issues (other than equalization, which he declared off the top “too big” for him to address at all), but said council should continue to “battle” with them.

Having thought the entire point of the charter was to come to grips with our “big, big issues” — or at least to acquire the tools to deal with our “big, big issues” — I found this approach to charter-building quite novel.

But I was very puzzled when I saw the list of “small” items he wanted included in his six-page “CHATER”:

I would consider most of those — certainly immigration, waste management (which he wants returned to provincial and federal jurisdiction) and “Wellness, child poverty child mental health, homelessness” — to be “big, big issues,” even if each can be written on a single page.

Councilors responded well to Hanson’s presentation, not nit-picking about what constitutes a “big issue” but congratulating him on bringing up the issues of child poverty, mental health and homelessness and for advising them to write the charter for “what you need” rather than what you think the provincial government will give you (which I have to say, is solid advice).

 

Noblesse oblige (NOT)

As District 11 Councilor Kendra Coombes pointed out, Jim Guy, professor emeritus of political science at Cape Breton University, was probably the most quoted presenter at either public consultation session, even before he’d made his presentation.

Jim Guy

Guy, a champion of properly funded equalization and a municipal charter for some years now, had recently written an op-ed in the Post on the subjects.

He promised to provide a written version of his remarks (it wasn’t up when last I checked), which cast the Charter as the “capstone” of a process begun in 1995, with amalgamation.

He warned council against crafting a lengthy document:

We want it to be short — punchy even — and to the point.

It should begin with a statement of who we are, identify all the municipalities by name, acknowledge that “we share the neighborhood with the Mi’kmaq people,” make a brief reference to our European and Caribbean heritage while noting our “openness to global immigration.”

Guy endorsed a recommendation from fellow poli-sci prof Tom Urbaniak that we should basically agree to be ruled by the MGA with a “notwithstanding” clause we can employ at will. He also called for an uncomplicated amending formula for the Charter, suggesting a “simple majority” of council would be sufficient.

Guy also suggested that rather than forming a committee to draft the Charter, the CBRM consider forming a “commission” which he argued would “elevate” what they were doing “to a higher level in the community.” A commission, he said, could then invite “all kinds of stakeholders” into its discussions — Mi’kmaq leaders, anti-poverty activists, seniors, youths and more.

Guy ended with his own plea for including equalization in the Charter, first acknowledging that it’s not an easy word to say:

I see eyes rolling in the back of heads of people that I talk to when I mention equalization. It is the faux pas word. It shouldn’t be, but it is the faux pas word.

Equalization is not just a small amount of money that is transferred from the provincial government as noblesse oblige, to help you get through the day (and believe me, it doesn’t really help you guys get through the day). Equalization is an entitlement. It’s a constitutional entitlement. It’s also public policy. Two very powerful forces around that word.

It’s not noblesse oblige, it’s your constitutional right.

 

Next steps

The question now is, will Minister Mombourquette’s very clear distinction between the Charter and the port project, combined with the show of interest in the document to date plus the calls for additional consultation with the public — in venues less formal than the Council Chambers — sway Mayor Cecil Clarke?

Clarke’s plan had been to push through an “initial” Charter, the proposal for which had been drafted by “CBRM staff” with the sole purpose of facilitating the sale or lease of municipal land in support of the port project. Clarke told council (repeatedly) that it was not responsible for writing the Charter, that the work would be done by the province.

But Minister Mombourquette promised a role for council and council seems to be quite interested in being involved. So will Clarke facilitate that involvement?

District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall asked the mayor what the next steps in the process would be and he said the next step would be to establish a committee (or commission) while warning that council will be very busy over the next few weeks with budget consultation sessions followed by budget deliberations.

Still, he seems to have accepted that there will be a committee (or commission) tasked with working out the CBRM’s Charter proposal. (District 4 Councilor Gillespie even raised the possibility that the commission might include non-councilors, which Mombourquette said would be possible.)

I’m not sure where this places us on the continuum, but I believe we are being pro-active.

 

 

 

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