Nova Scotia

CBRM faces 'brutal reality' unless population decline stemmed

An independent study says if the population continues to decline in Cape Breton Regional Municipality, the region will not be viable in the long term.

Mayor Cecil Clarke says money will be key to achieving many goals under the most optimistic scenario

Mayor Cecil Clarke said a new report into population decline in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality underlines a 'brutal reality.' (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton Regional Municpality's mayor says an independent study underlines the "brutal reality" that the region will not be viable in the long term if the population continues to decline.

The study, done by the firm Grant Thornton and paid for by the Nova Scotia government, made 20 recommendations on ways to increase population and tax revenues.

A committee of CBRM council that includes municipal and provincial staff, as well as two citizens, received the viability study report Tuesday morning.

The study projected the municipality's population and tax base over the next 20 years based on three scenarios: the status quo, a pessimistic view and an optimistic one.

Comes down to money

The report recommends taking the optimistic view and says CBRM should launch a marketing strategy, increase immigration and improve municipal efficiency and revenues, among other things.

One of the recommendations suggests CBRM develop a business case for increased provincial funding.

Mayor Cecil Clarke said improved funding from the province will be the key to achieving many of the goals under the optimistic scenario.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to money," he said. "Money is the challenge in terms of what we're experiencing, or lack thereof, and money is what's going to be required.

"I'm glad there's an optimistic view, because we've been dealing with the pessimistic reality that's there. It almost feels like you go to a wake and people say, 'You know, don't they look good? You swear to God they're just sleeping.' But they're actually dead. There's a brutal reality that this report underlines."

Continued population decline

CBRM's population is currently about 91,000.

According to the study, projections show that if nothing else changes over the next 20 years, the population will continue to drop by about 1,000 citizens every year.

The rate of decline increases under the pessimistic scenario, in which population drops faster, negatively affecting tax revenues and the growing infrastructure deficit.

Under an optimistic scenario, various efforts could stem the rate of population decline. The population could then return to the current level in about eight years and start to grow modestly after that.

The growth then could start to have a positive effect on municipal funds and infrastructure.

Coun. Darren Bruckschwaiger says he was torn, because the allowance was easy to claim but it did not cover the tens of thousands of kilometres he put on his personal vehicle every year. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Coun. Darren Bruckschwaiger, chair of the committee that received the report, said the study shows the province needs to move some staff into the municipality to focus on the economy.

"It says we're not viable on our present path," he said. "There has to be a lot of changes and the Department of Economic Development ... has to spend more time in the second-largest region of the province."

Many CBRM council members, including the mayor, believed the report would outline the need for more provincial funding.

More resources needed

The municipality has long complained that the province doesn't fairly distribute equalization funding from the federal government.

Bruckschwaiger said that does come through in the report, but it's subtle.

"It doesn't actually spell that out, but it does point out that in different areas, they have to help us, so it could be money, it can be resources," he said. "We do need money to stabilize this community."

Coun. Earlene MacMullin said the report provides "third-party validation" of council's position that the municipality is underfunded and headed for trouble.

CBRM chief administrative officer Marie Walsh says some of the recommendations, such as joining a provincial regional enterprise network to spur economic development, are already underway. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

CBRM's chief administrative officer, Marie Walsh, said the report is close to being finished, but the municipality's work is just beginning.

Some of that work, such as joining a provincial regional enterprise network to spur economic development, is already underway, she said.

But the report will also be a tool to negotiate funding with the province, Walsh said.

The study is expected to go to a special meeting of council later this month and will be finalized by Grant Thornton after that.

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