Economic development needs to be embraced
But CBRM council must adopt a more savvy approach
Back in 2014, Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) Mayor Cecil Clarke observed publicly that “economic development” has never been the responsibility of the municipal government. Most political scientists would agree wholeheartedly.
Barely acknowledged when Canada crafted its federal system, municipal governments were assigned the mundane tasks of service delivery such as curb and gutter maintenance, garbage collection, snow removal, and parks and recreation. Most of these were the original 19th century functions accorded this level of government.
Fast forward to the 21st century: Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Canadian federalism where today a municipality will engage in the international diplomacy of inviting foreign ambassadors to town for talks on harbour development and job creation.
And remember during the last municipal campaign the mayoralty candidates were blatantly asked to resolve child poverty, high unemployment and to prepare the groundwork for a world-class container terminal.
And don’t forget to fix the potholes, retain heavy garbage pickup and build a new library, among all the other “normal” ground-level tasks of managing the CBRM on a stretched municipal budget.
Council has indicated it now wishes to “tackle economic development.” But it must do so with no money or an administrative infrastructure to meet enormous economic challenges. Council is not a ministry of economic development.
Without a doubt, these are really problems of national magnitude that have parachuted politically to the municipal level. The problems require the substantial resources of the provincial and federal governments to resolve them. Can’t be done by the CBRM on its own.
Some downloading of government responsibilities began with the province’s dubious plan to create efficiencies among the eight eastern Cape Breton municipalities. By the mid-1990s amalgamation had pushed us off the government wharf with no instruction manual, a wink and a good luck wish.
At the end of the day, we were expected to move forward without many of the resources that use to be available to “regions” under previous federal governments. This was when the federal and provincial governments took the “initiative” on regional economic expansion and provided the money and expertise to follow up.
Regional economic development agencies have been established in each province, under the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. The federal government provides regions that apply like ours with an economic development facility. The CBRM is an eligible client for the establishment of such a facility, notwithstanding the work of Business Cape Breton and Enterprise Cape Breton.
Recently, the CBRM council announced that it wants to prepare its own economic development strategy. That strategy will have to be carefully crafted within the thin fiscal capacity of the CBRM.
As the second major urban centre after Halifax, the CBRM regrettably faces a diminishing tax base, high unemployment and a provincial government that annually misappropriates equalization transfers to the CBRM and other municipalities.
Once council demonstrates a complete understanding of this issue and how the issue itself explains the fiscal disadvantages under which the CBRM annually operates, it will be in a position to build a credible strategy for economic development.
The strategy needs to start with reconciling our fiscal relationship with the province. It has been neglected for too long. That involves negotiating a fair annual equalization transfer based on the $1.8 billion the federal government gives Nova Scotia, money to stabilize its public service delivery and to fund infrastructure in municipalities. Most of that money finds its way into the capital region and diminishes fiscal capacity here.
An economic development strategy by council needs to address the outstanding matter of comparable levels of taxation and services within the province. They are glaringly distorted!
The CBRM endures much higher residential and commercial levels of taxation than exists in the rest of Nova Scotia. This results from the deliberate and systematic underfunding of municipalities around the issue of equalization.
All municipalities outside of Halifax are marginalized by the flawed funding model of the provincial government. The Ivany Report empowered the capital region as the preferred provincial growth centre and by so doing disempowered all other municipalities in the overall plan of economic recovery for the province. The CBRM will have to design its own economic strategy with that in mind.