Lohr Writes a Letter

In a different world, responding to Tuesday’s Cape Breton Post column by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing John Lohr would have been a cake walk.

John Lohr

John Lohr

Lohr, after all, took pen in hand to compose a missive that began:

Imagine sending a note to a municipality informing them they will be receiving extra money to support population growth for things like housing and active transportation. I got to do that over the last week and 48 municipalities benefited.

Now imagine being on the other side, the receiving side, and as you sit down to do your budget you receive the surprise good news that you will be receiving more – extra – money from the province than you expected. I think it’s worth repeating that this extra money goes above and beyond what usual grants municipalities receive. One would think that this would also be a good feeling.

Imagine writing about government spending like you’re a grandpa sending birthday money to the grandkids.

Those scenarios played out recently, but remarkably of the 48 municipalities around the province that received this surprise news of extra funding, one was quick to respond with the message that they are not happy with the extra money. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM), in fact, has been clear that not only are they not happy with their extra $3 million, they are downright mad and demanding more.

Gee Grandpa, what ingrates you’re dealing with! It would serve them right if you spent all that money on Coronation Street box sets and foam insoles.

Lohr skips over the part where the CBRM sends more to the provincial government in mandatory payments for corrections, housing, education and the provincial property valuation corporation each year than it receives in its “usual grant”—which is “usual” not just in the sense that it comes each year but in that it has been frozen around $15 million for years while the mandatory payments continue to rise.

Here’s the relevant item from the proposed 2023-24 budget:

Text from the CBRM's 2023-24 budget.

Lohr also references “last year” when the government “made good” on its election promise to “double the pot of money available for municipalities.” But Houston’s promise, as stated in September 2020 in the Cape Breton Post, was to double that pot of money every year until a “new memorandum of understanding” between the province and the municipalities is negotiated—that new memorandum of understanding has yet to be negotiated, so where’s the money?

To push the “grandpa” analogy to its limit, it’s like he’s tucking a whole dollar bill into a birthday card then complaining that kids these days have no gratitude.


Tax cut

See? The rebuttal would practically have written itself, if Lohr didn’t have one incontrovertible fact at his disposal:

…many communities used their extra money to actually invest in their communities in meaningful ways such as long-term infrastructure like roads and sewer.

CBRM was an outlier. CBRM council used last year’s extra funding on a one-time tax decrease that ended up benefitting commercial retailers far more than the average Cape Bretoner.

It’s true, although I don’t think the “one-time” is accurate, given council seems pretty determined to maintain those lower tax rates, despite a request from staff to “reconsider” them as part of their budget deliberations this year:

Text from 2023-24 CBRM budget document.

Council suspended its operating budget deliberations last Thursday, saying word had come from the province that there could be additional funding to help cover the municipality’s $4.2 million shortfall (which, after two days of talks, had been whittled down to a $2.4 million shortfall through a combination of cost-cutting measures and new fees.)

Then came Lohr’s letter and today the squabble has shifted focus to Lohr’s contention that CBRM council wants to “spend this $3 million as they please, not specifically on housing, infrastructure or transportation which are critical needs for their residents,” which does seem to be wrong, but also seems to be beside the point: council has a hole in its budget in no small part because council cut taxes last year.

It’s a hard argument to rebut, but I’m sure they’ll try.