N.S. equalization program needs redesign, says municipal affairs minister
Chuck Porter says program to get overhaul after five-year freeze on payments to municipalities ends
Equalization grants to municipalities was one of the hot topics when Cape Breton regional councillors held their first official meeting with Nova Scotia Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter on Monday.
Porter, the MLA for Hants West, was handed the portfolio last July and has been meeting municipal councils across the province.
CBRM has long fought for more equalization funding from the province. Payments under the program, now called the municipal capacity fund, have been frozen for the past five years.
After the meeting, Porter said he told CBRM council the program has to be redesigned by next year.
Revenues, taxes also discussed
"I do not know what that looks like, but we are looking at that and will continue to review that, and obviously we have a timeframe when that needs to be done, and that's high on my list of priorities," he said.
Some residents and CBRM councillors argue the province receives about $1.8 billion from the federal government in equalization payments, but only distributes a small portion of that to municipalities.
The federal program is intended to ensure citizens have reasonably comparable access to services for reasonably comparable tax levels.
Provincial officials have said the provincial program for municipalities is not connected to the federal program for provinces.
CBRM council and the minister also talked about funding for infrastructure and ways to raise revenues and lower taxes.
CBRM councillors didn't get any money from the minister, but at least one councillor appreciated being able to air some of his frustrations with the province.
Coun. Eldon MacDonald said one was the question of which council meetings have to be open to the public, and which ones don't.
MacDonald said he's getting mixed messages from the province.
The meeting with Porter was first scheduled as a special meeting of council that was open to the public.
Later, municipal staff issued a notice saying the meeting would be closed.
CBRM has been chastised by the province for holding closed-door meetings and breaking the Municipal Government Act.
MacDonald said he wants the province to clarify the issue with CBRM staff.
"According to the directive that we've gotten from Municipal Affairs staff in the past — and most recently I'll say in the last year — is that this type of meeting absolutely should be public, and the minister said he's not having it as a public meeting," MacDonald said.
"So my thing was, OK, well why is it they get to choose when it's public and not, but yet we're told it all has to be public?"
MacDonald said the meeting was generally cordial, and he wasn't expecting any immediate answers from the minister.
"We had about an hour and a half," said MacDonald.
"Personally, I wish we had a little bit more time in there, but as I say we covered a bit of ground in the short period of time that we had."
Porter said he wasn't meeting with council to make commitments, but he would raise CBRM's concerns with his government colleagues in Halifax.