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CBRM council approves rare budget with tax cuts and increased spending

Cape Breton Regional Municipality council is giving residents a tax break in this year's budget, along with new spending, mostly covered by a shift to user fees for sewage service. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)
Cape Breton Regional Municipality council is giving residents a tax break in this year's budget, along with new spending, mostly covered by a shift to user fees for sewage service. (Tom Ayers/CBC - image credit)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality's budget for the coming year gives residents a tax break, while boosting spending on infrastructure and operations.

That's possible partly because the Nova Scotia government eliminated municipal taxes for housing and corrections, and partly because of huge increases in property values.

It's also in large part because of a planned switch to a user-pay model for sewer services.

Coun. Darren Bruckschwaiger, a veteran of municipal politics even before CBRM's creation in 1995, said it's a good-news budget.

"I haven't seen a budget like this come before me and I've been around this table since '97 and in Dominion prior to that where there was some lean years as well," he said Wednesday. "We've been through budgets here where we couldn't have any capital and I remember them well. There was some real lean times. We're very fortunate this year to have some growth."

Mayor Amanda McDougall said the last three years have been challenging for municipal finances, with provincial funding frozen and the impact of post-tropical storm Fiona in 2022 and a recent 150-centimetre snow storm.

Mayor touts 'savings and investment'

"It was not easy, that's for sure, but it's a good feeling to be able to come to the public and say, 'Look, we've done the best job we possibly can and we hope you appreciate the savings that you see and the investment in the community,'" she said.

Council set aside three days to approve its capital and operating budgets for the coming year, but got them done in less than a day.

Infrastructure is getting a 20 per cent boost under the capital budget and more money will be spent on operations, even with a cut in taxes.

Staff say an unserviced home assessed at $120,000 will save about $37 on their tax bill.

Those on a municipal sewer system will save almost $250.

Everyone will benefit from the province eliminating municipal taxes for housing and corrections and chief financial officer Jennifer Campbell said CBRM is seeing increased user fees for transit and 911 service.

But the proposed sewage user fee is the driving factor behind the reduction in taxes, she said.

Chief financial officer Jennifer Campbell says creating a wastewater utility will generate user fees that can help cover some of CBRM's administrative costs.
Chief financial officer Jennifer Campbell says creating a wastewater utility will generate user fees that can help cover some of CBRM's administrative costs.

Chief financial officer Jennifer Campbell says creating a wastewater utility will generate user fees that can help cover some of CBRM's administrative costs. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Not only does that allow CBRM to eliminate the sewage tax some properties currently pay, but user fees will generate up to $4 million annually for the municipality to pay for administrative services provided to the proposed new wastewater utility.

"Obviously, the wastewater commission is not going to try to duplicate services by hiring their own finance team, for example, and their own legal team and their own HR team," Campbell said.

Council has approved first reading of a bylaw that would create a new wastewater utility that would see user fees regulated by the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (UARB).

It has to pass second reading at a future council meeting before going to the UARB.

Coun. Green voted against budget

Coun. Lorne Green was the only one to vote against the budget this week, saying he's not convinced a user-pay model is the fairest way to cover sewer charges.

"It should just be left alone and let the [utility board], if they're going to put a user-pay model in, let them implement that," he said.

The capital budget is set at $79 million and covers infrastructure such as roads and streets, sewer and water systems and transit.

Under the approved budget, CBRM will start this year on building a new transit vehicle maintenance facility that will be able to accommodate electric buses.

Budget includes new staff

Many other projects can also go ahead this year, but some are dependent on funding from other levels of government.

The operating budget totals $178 million, which is up 2.3 per cent over last year.

It covers increased costs for fuel and staff wages and benefits, including hiring  six new full-time employees in areas such as tech support, housing and bylaw enforcement.

Two of those are funded by other levels of government.

It also includes $150,000 to cost-share the paving of two provincially owned J-class rural roads, but council unanimously passed a motion to ask the province to pave all 16 remaining J-class roads in CBRM at a cost of $2.2 million.

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