CBRM makes case for selling, leasing land below market value

The Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the District of Guysborough say the proposed changes to the Municipal Government Act would give CBRM an unfair advantage.

Town of Antigonish, District of Guysborough say changes would give CBRM unfair advantage

The hearing was held at Province House. (CBC)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke made his case to provincial leaders Monday that CBRM should be allowed to sell or lease land at lower than market value.

The proposed changes to the Municipal Government Act would also allow the CBRM to grant tax breaks to businesses. The hope is the changes would attract a container terminal to Sydney.

But at a law amendments committee meeting Monday at Province House, smaller communities in Nova Scotia spoke out in opposition of the changes.​ They argued they had not been properly consulted on Bill 85, and the changes would give the CBRM an unfair advantage.

"This bill provides tools to one municipalities that others do not have," said Laurie Boucher, mayor of the Town of Antigonish. "We are concerned this is not allowing for equal economic development within our province.... We are given the impression that the province is attempting to select winners or losers."

Business groups oppose changes

Vernon Pitts, the warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, also spoke against the proposal.

"No credible, responsible developer has ever complained about paying market value for land," he said. "Anyone can start a business and promise to create jobs if government removes the risks."

Vernon Pitts is the warden of the Municipality of the District of Guysborough. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Business development groups, including the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce and the Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN), shared their concerns with the committee.

"Artificial incentives don't do anything to build a strong foundation for business," said John Beaton, CEO of ESREN. "I have to say Bill 85 is bad for business on a provincial scale."

Highest commercial tax rate in province

But the CBRM says it needs the changes in order to attract business to the area.

Municipal CAO Marie Walsh says the region's commercial tax rate of $5.46 is the highest in the province, more than double the tax rate of the communities opposing the change.

The changes would allow the municipality to compete on the global scale.

"We are not engaging in a race to the bottom. We are a regional government, and so are not competing with our neighbouring municipalities. We are offering a proposal that is comparative and competitive to others in the same industry," Walsh said.

CBRM's chief administrative officer Marie Walsh, right, says regardless of what the province calls it, the municipal operating grant is equalization, because it is intended to ensure reasonably similar services at reasonably similar tax rates across Nova Scotia. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"It will secure future tax revenues and encourage job creation in an area of high unemployment and one-third of its children living in poverty," she said.

Walsh pointed to past examples of when legislative authority has been given to municipalities for the purposes of economic development, including to Halifax for the Irving Shipyard.

"This project, not unlike the others, is good for Nova Scotia. This does not give CBRM a carte blanche for other projects," she said, adding that other municipalities could do the same as CBRM.

Mi'kmaq chiefs support bill

Bill 85 is also receiving the support of Chief Terrance Paul of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs.

"In moving this bill forward, perhaps it's not the traditional way we have done things in this region. But why let that hinder our growth?" he said. "It is a positive step forward to a prosperous future.

Chief Terrance Paul is with the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"For us, this is much more than strictly a Sydney operation. The benefits that our communities stand to work for will support 22,000 Mi'kmaq people in Nova Scotia," Paul said. "We recognize that this is the only port project in Nova Scotia that has gone through the proper consultation process."

Monday's committee referred Bill 85 back to the House without amendments.

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg

Journalist

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca