CBRM budget passes amid concern over growing gap in provincial funding
Mayor says council can't address infrastructure, other priorities with increasing costs from the province
Cape Breton regional councillors have approved their annual budget, but they are also raising concerns about a recurring — and growing — gap in provincial funding.
Mayor Amanda McDougall says increased property assessments boosted revenues and helped CBRM hold the line this year.
The new budget contains no tax rate increases and no cuts in services, but it doesn't do much more than that, she said.
"We really don't have a lot of wiggle room in our budget," McDougall said. "It's tight."
During budget talks last week, councillors said the difference is getting larger between the municipal capacity grant from the province, which used to be called the equalization grant, and what the CBRM has to spend on mandatory services that are a provincial responsibility, such as housing, corrections and education.
CBRM's provincial grant has been frozen at $15 million since 2014, but the mandatory costs have grown to nearly $21 million this year.
McDougall said those costs go up every year and that difference in funding is keeping the municipality from fixing more roads and sidewalks.
She said those are the top requests councillors get from constituents.
"It just would be amazing to have a bit more disposable income, I guess you could say, when it came to doing more work in terms of infrastructure," the mayor said.
Closing that funding gap might even allow CBRM to work on improvements to other municipal services.
"At the end of the day, it's having some money to be discretionary, to think about OK, what should we be investing in, rather than how do we scrimp and save just to get by," McDougall said.
McDougall said she raised the financial disparity recently during an introductory meeting with the new premier and municipal affairs minister, but the problem remains.
"To resolve something like that in a 45-minute meeting would be remarkable," she said.
"It was brought up and there was commitment from the provincial folks at the table to continue conversations around this."
Council directed the mayor to arrange a meeting with the province to try to fix the problem and to contact all MLAs and MPs to gain their support ahead of elections that are expected within the next year.
In addition, McDougall said council decided on several other items that need action. They include:
- A special council meeting will be called to explore alternative uses for community rinks that sit idle for part of the year.
- Staff have been asked to write an issue paper on the possibility of increasing illegal dumping fines that are already among the highest in the province.
- An issue paper is also needed on municipal support for the creative sector.
- Staff were asked for an issue paper on the cost of street lights.
- The mayor is to write a letter to the premier on cost recovery for COVID-related items, such as transit and police quarantine checks.
CBRM also approved a heavy garbage pickup this spring, but the dates have not been determined.
Wayne MacDonald, the public works director, said staff would normally issue a tender for the service, which would then start four or five weeks later.
However, he said, the pandemic lockdown may impact how and when the service goes ahead.