CBRM Council: Properties and Taxes

Tuesday’s budget deliberations by CBRM council actually followed a regular council meeting that began at 9:30 yesterday morning, but I’m going to deal with the budget first because somebody has to deal with the CBRM budget in a timely manner and it certainly hasn’t been CBRM council.

Councilors, who voted last year to slash property taxes by 5% across the board, have been trying since April to patch the hole this has left in the 2023-2024 budget and yesterday they did it—by bowing to the inevitable and raising taxes 3.5%—but not before floating some innovative ideas like “cut the police over-time budget by $1 million” and “direct staff to make more cuts.”

The tax increase finally passed by a vote of seven to six. Voting in favor were Mayor Amanda McDougall-Merrill and Councilors Earlene MacMullin, Eldon MacDonald, Ken Tracey, Steve Gillespie, Darren Bruckschwaiger and Darren O’Quinn.

Opposed were Councilors Gordon MacDonald, Glenn Paruch, Steve Parsons, Lorne Green, Cyril MacDonald and James Edwards.

Prior to voting, District 2 Councilor MacMullin, who had supported the original tax cut, gave a rather emotional speech in which she said that next year, they should come prepared to actually explore cuts like those to over-time or personal use of municipal vehicles rather than simply throwing them out as last-minute suggestions for cutting the deficit.

I support this—in fact, I would argue this is council’s job, to come to the table at budget time with a reasonable understanding of the workings of the municipality they run and budgeting ideas that reflect this.

I know this is no easy thing, the inner workings of the CBRM are complicated, which is why we need to cut councilors some slack when it comes to handling broken streetlights and potholes and sewer mains and allow them to focus on policy making.


Marketing Levy

Back in November 2022, Destination Cape Breton (DCB) CEO Terry Smith came to council to ask that it amend its Marketing Levy By-Law to raise the marketing levy on hotels and other “fixed-roof” accommodations (which funds DCB) from 2% to 3% and apply it to Airbnb and VRBO rentals.

A man stands behind a podium speaking into a mic.

Terry Smith

On Tuesday, Smith was back to tell council that the Provincial Department of Municipal Affairs had since informed them that a new by-law was required as the enabling legislation had been changed.

DCB’s (unnamed) solicitor helpfully drafted the new by-law, a draft template was provided to the mayors, wardens and CAOs of the five municipalities that support DCB and, following their review and a “few suggested edits” a final template was provided on June 6.

One of the suggested changes that has been incorporated into the new by-law is that people displaced by natural disasters “including high wind event, flood event, fire or other naturally occurring damaging event” are exempt from the levy. (I guess “gas leak resulting from fuel storage tank being punctured by front-loader” doesn’t qualify).

Regional solicitor Demetri Kachafanis introduced changes to a couple of “small legal things” and councilors asked a few questions. District 7 Councilor Steve Parsons wanted to know where the 3% levy put us in comparison to other Atlantic Canadian cities and Smith said we’re on par with Charlottetown and Summerside and below Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John (3.5%) and St. John’s (4%).

Then the motion to pass the by-law (incorporating the solicitor’s changes) was passed unanimously.

(I have lots of thoughts about how DCB uses that money, but you can read them in the November article.)


J-Class Roads

Council accepted staff’s recommendation to sign a three-year agreement with the province for funding J-Class roads.

I found out all about J-Class roads back in 2021 when I took an insanely deep dive into the CBRM’s budget talks:

[Public Works & Engineering Director Wayne] MacDonald explained that provincial roads that were already paved as of amalgamation are the responsibility of the province but for a certain portion of roads unpaved at amalgamation (those built between 1980 and 1995) the CBRM and the province have agreed to share paving costs 50/50. (These roads are referred to as both “J-Class” and “subdivision roads” in this Department of Transportation document from 2001).

As Councilor Parsons pointed out, the 28 years since amalgamation has not been enough time “to do these roads.” Parsons suggested they offer to split the costs to get the last of the roads (14 of which are in his district) paved, adding that he and Councilor Edwards had met with Cape Breton East MLA (and cabinet minister) Brian Comer to discuss the issue.

Public Works & Engineering director MacDonald said that any time the province has brought extra money to the table for paving, the CBRM has come up with its share, but the Mayor added that last year, when the municipality had extra money, it had set up a meeting with MLAs to ask the province to finish the roads and got a “hard no.”

CBRM road ownership

Tuesday ended with council approving the three-year agreement while agreeing to pursue another meeting with provincial representatives.


Bridgeport School

Donna Hoar of Grey Cardinal Management and a representative of Halifax-based FBM Architecture (who was not senior architect Dennis Ramsay, as billed, but whose name I didn’t catch and will have to come back and fill in once the video of the meeting is posted) presented to council about their client the MacLeod Group’s plan to buy the former Bridgeport School in Glace Bay, knock it down and build a long-term care (LTC) facility to replace its existing Glace Bay facility, Victoria Haven.

A building in a field under a blue sky filled with clouds.

Bridgeport School, Glace Bay (Source: Google Maps)

The MacLeod Group’s “vision” for the property includes a 64-bed “anchor” facility with the rest of the property occupied by “an assisted living facility and senior retirement living duplexes” and “green space and trails” the community could also use.

The school, which CBRM Property Manager Sheila Kolanko explained had already been damaged by vandals before post-tropical storm Fiona made everything worse, has an assessed value of $506,200 while a rear lot, which the MacLeod Group would also like to purchase, is assessed at $13,500. Costs to demolish the school are expected to exceed $300,000.

An architect's rendering of a long-term care facility.

Architect’s rendering of the MacLeod Group’s proposed LTC facility, Glace Bay.


The MacLeod Group is offering to buy the properties for the difference between their fair market value and the cost of demolishing the school or $1—whichever is greater—and will hire an appraiser to value the properties. In response to questions from council, Kolanko said the CBRM reserves the right to engage its own appraiser if it disagrees with the results of the first appraisal. She also said she doubted the properties’ fair market value would be worth anything like their assessed value (which does raise some questions about assessed values, but we’ll put those aside for another day).

Kolanko recommended staff declare the property surplus and accept the MacLeod Group’s offer (while retaining an easement for cross-country sewer line repair purposes).

Council did.



A photo of Sheila Kolanko, CBRM property manager.

Sheila Kolanko (This is not from the Tuesday, 27 June 2023 meeting!)

Yesterday’s council meeting was largely the Sheila Kolanko show—after the MacLeod Group presentation, Kolanko remained at the podium to deal with a number of additional property requests.

The first originated with staff, who asked council to declare a parcel of land “commonly referred to as “Wintering Harbour Park” on Intercolonial Street in Sydney as a proposed location for re-development.

This is the sort of recommendation that would usually send shivers up my spine, but in this case, it’s the CBRM being pro-active about identifying “prime real estate for housing” as part of its decision to apply for funding under the federal government’s $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF).

The fund prioritizes the development of “complete communities;” affordable, inclusive, equitable and diverse communities; and low-carbon communities, none of which I can argue with. (That the land in question abuts a large expanse of green space, in the form of Open Hearth Park, also helps.)

Council approved staff’s request.


Bursting at the seams

From an abandoned to school to a school “bursting at the seams,” according to District 11 Councilor Darren O’Quinn, Kolanko’s next request was from the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education seeking to purchase a property adjacent to Greenfield Elementary School in River Ryan.

The centre wants the land for modular classrooms for its pre-primary program.

O’Quinn said the school has pressed both the library and the cafeteria into service as classrooms.

Council approved the education center’s request.


Strategic Vision

Mike Targett, the mayor’s community consultation coordinator, presented a review of council’s May 10 “Strategic Vision” workshop, during which it discussed housing, transit and recreation opportunities for youth.

Targett said that while a public survey found respondents generally agreed with the strategic vision developed by council during its controversial, closed door sessions in Ben Eoin in March 2021, a sixth question (“Did we miss anything?”) showed respondents also felt they’d missed a number of things—most notably, affordable housing.

The “vision” approved by council included five items; economic development, a CBRM charter, harbor development, population growth and diversification of revenue.

A list of items respondents said were missed in the CBRM's "strategic vision" statement.

The list of “missed” things, in addition to housing, included recreation and youth programming, roads and infrastructure, transit, climate change, the library and more, but “to arrive at something manageable and coherent” the results were narrowed to the three topics discussed during the May 10 workshop.

Targett asked council on Tuesday to expand its “strategic vision” statement to include “Community Inclusion,” which would encompass affordable housing and homelessness, youth and family recreation, and transit. Further, he recommended council strike task forces for each of these subjects, to be made up of “community members who are leaders and experts in each domain; representatives of the relevant community groups already working on the issue; CBRM Staff; and people with lived experience.” (You can read about these task forces and their mandates in Targett’s presentation, which begins on P. 49 of the meeting agenda.)

Each task force will be required to report back to council at a “Solutions Forum,” a term Targett credited to CBU’s Dr. Tom Urbaniak, to be scheduled no later than six months from yesterday.

This seems to bear some relation to the type of “participatory democracy” the Spectator‘s Sean Howard has been discussing (here and here) these past few weeks, although I don’t think the existence of these task forces obviates the need for a truly representative Citizens Assembly of the kind Sean advocates.

Still, this seems like a good thing and it would be churlish of me not to say as much.

Council approved Targett’s motion.


Emergency relief

District 1 Councilor Gordon MacDonald added the final item to Tuesday’s agenda: a request for a staff Issue Paper on “engaging with our Federal and Provincial Governments to create a Local Disaster Relief Fund for CBRM.”

In explaining his motion, MacDonald wrote that in the wake of post-tropical storm Fiona, the CBRM learned it was “too reliant on volunteers and other governments to get a quick start on emergency relief and on helping our communities with shelters, comfort centers, the ability to get fuel, Wi-Fi and things like generators.”

MacDonald wants mayor and council along with fire and emergency services and the federal and provincial governments to create a $1 million local disaster relief fund for CBRM.

CAO Marie Walsh noted that the municipality is taking advantage of some government programs to prepare for the next disaster (buying generators, for instance) but agreed such discussions would be worthwhile.

I have to think similar discussions will be had by every municipal council across the country as the effects of climate change become increasingly extreme.

Council approved the motion.


Farewell to the Municipal Clerk

Tuesday was Deborah Campbell-Ryan’s last meeting as CBRM municipal clerk and the Mayor wished her a happy retirement and “lots of baseball games.” Campbell-Ryan was given a standing ovation by council.

Nothing was said about her replacement.