Nova Scotia

CBRM's pandemic costs up, but revenues not down as much as feared

Cape Breton Regional Municipality's first financial statement since the pandemic started will be unveiled next week. The chief financial officer says the numbers are not as bad as feared, but there is concern for next year.

CFO Jennifer Campbell says deed transfer taxes and building permit fees have been unexpectedly strong

Jennifer Campbell, CBRM's chief financial officer, says costs are up due to COVID-19, but revenues are not as low as officials initially feared they would be. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Next week, Cape Breton Regional Municipality will unveil its first financial statement since COVID-19 hit Nova Scotia eight months ago.

Jennifer Campbell, CBRM's chief financial officer, said since the spring, the municipality had expected to pay more for cleaning and sanitizing and braced for lost revenues from transit, facility rentals, deed transfer taxes and building permits.

However, she said, the reality has been somewhat different.

"While we are experiencing some pressures on the expenditure side, we are seeing better than anticipated results on the revenue side," Campbell said.

The province has since kicked in money for transit and CBRM has seen increased deed transfer taxes from property sales and increased commercial and residential building permit fees.

Cape Breton realtors are reporting strong housing sales this year and Paul Burt, CBRM manager of buildings, planning and licensing, said the number of building permits is a little higher over previous years, but dollar amounts are up even more.

"We're definitely up in the value of construction, big time," he said.

Residential, commercial development growth

Burt said the provincial redevelopment of area hospitals, expected to cost around $400 million, and the construction of a new Nova Scotia Community College campus in downtown Sydney are both driving additional commercial and residential growth.

The provincial government does not need building permits from the municipality, but Burt said the NSCC building permit alone brought in about $80,000.

He said there's new commercial growth from the Horizon Achievement Centre and Protocase in Sydney's Open Hearth Park and a significant housing development is going up on Keltic Drive in Sydney River.

CBRM's last financial statement was presented publicly in September, but that covered the fiscal year-end up to March 31.

Since April, the municipality has been struggling to get a handle on the pandemic's impact and because of the fall elections, council only met once since July and that was to deal with the year-end financial results.

The details of the current financial picture will be presented next week at the first meeting of the newly elected CBRM council.

Campbell says CBRM is not expected to get an automatic boost in tax revenues next year because the assessment cap is tied to inflation and the rate is currently below zero. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Meanwhile, Campell is already working on a budget forecast for next year.

She said a big concern is the rate of inflation, which the Nova Scotia Finance Department says is below zero due to the pandemic.

That will mean no increase in property assessments due to the cap, which is tied to inflation.

Municipalities use assessment values to set tax rates.

Tax rate traditionally steady

Campbell said CBRM has traditionally kept its tax rate the same and relied on annual assessment increases to bring in more tax revenue.

With the cap expected to keep assessments flat, the municipality will have to rely on assessment increases from new building permits and from properties that are no longer capped because they have been sold, she said.

Because of the consumer price index, also known as CPI or the inflation rate, general assessments have increased one to three per cent over the last few years, Campbell said.

"This year will be a different animal altogether to try to deal with, with respect to tax growth," she said.

Hoping for 'organic' growth

It's too soon to predict what effect increased building permits and other user fees will have on next year's budget, Campbell said.

"We're hopeful that while CPI may not have increased and we won't see an increase in capped assessment, there will be other organic growth that will generate additional tax dollars," she said.

While the pandemic has affected inflation and will determine the assessment cap, the effect on property values will not be known until late next year.

Lloyd MacLeod, a senior manager with the Property Valuation Services Corp., said next year's property assessments will be based on Jan. 1, 2020 values.

"We won't see any actual impact from the pandemic, on assessment notices anyway, until 2022," he said.

MacLeod said next year's assessment values should be ready next month and will go to municipalities in January.

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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