What Will $9M Buy CBRM?

Credit where credit is due: Tim Houston’s Tory government has followed through on an election promise and doubled funding to Nova Scotia’s municipalities, an increase of $32 million.

John Lohr

John Lohr

The increase is for one year only but Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr, who made the announcement last Friday, says it’s intended to tide municipalities over while a new funding formula is negotiated.

For the CBRM, the announcement will mean an additional $15 million, which Lohr says it will receive “within the next month.”

The increase in funding is intended to address the imbalance between what the municipality receives from the province in the form a “municipal capacity grant” (aka “equalization”) and what it must pay the province each year for corrections, housing, education and the provincial property valuation corporation. These “mandatory” payments have been steadily growing while the capacity grant has been frozen since 2014, leading to a situation where, this year, the mandatory payments totaled $21 million while the capacity grant was stuck at $15 million..

This is particularly galling because these mandatory payments support areas of provincial responsibility — meaning, municipalities must help pay for them but have no say over them.

Given there was no announcement about mandatory payments being abolished or reduced, it’s probably more correct to say that CBRM is receiving an extra $9 million than an extra “$15 million.”

And for the record, Fr. Albert Maroun of Nova Scotians for Equalization Fairness, the local organization leading the charge for higher equalization payments to municipalities, told the Post:

It’s still a very small amount of money, considering what’s really owed to us.


Other money

That said, having pored over the CBRM operating budget earlier this year, I know that $9 million is not to be sneezed at — that’s the value of our entire piped infrastructure budget for 2020-21; it’s more than the municipality’s paving budget for local, collector, gravel and J-Class roads combined ($8.2 million); it’s 9 times the budget for sidewalks ($1 million). 

Little wonder, then, Mayor Amanda McDougall told the CBC’s Tom Ayers she was “really excited” by the news:

“It’s been counting nickels and dimes, not being able to invest in new opportunities or programming, just kind of keeping status quo and trying to stay afloat for so long.”

McDougall said she has some ideas on where to spend the money, but council will have to discuss it first.

Mayor Amanda McDougall and Fr. Albert Maroun.

Mayor Amanda McDougall and Fr. Albert Maroun.

In an interview with the Cape Breton Post‘s Ian Nathanson (who had her “reveling” in the announcement), McDougall explained that the capacity grant funds:

…come with a caveat, which is to provide a standard of services — our fire services, police services, or any of the services that we provide to residents. Essentially that money goes into taking care of our services but then it frees up other money.

She said those discussions about how this “other money” will be used will take place during council’s regular October meeting and that she imagines:

…paying down the municipality’s debt, establishing needed community programs or the much-debated construction of a new downtown library will likely come up in conversation as potential suggestions.

The money could be used to leverage additional funding from other levels of government — certainly, that would be the case with the library. To date, the CBRM has had no joy in its search for provincial and federal funding for this project. (I have written extensively about my own theory, which is that the municipality allowed a private developer too much influence over the process, resulting in an initial funding application that proposed a municipal contribution of $6 million — $3 million of which was to take the form of land which was not an eligible contribution.)

McDougall says the money will not be spent “recklessly” (which I believe, the CBRM throws nickels around like manhole covers) so the question is, will it be spent wisely? I guess we’ll have to tune into that October council meeting to find out.