Mayor calls on province to act as CBRM faces doubtful future

Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s mayor is calling for a meeting with Nova Scotia’s municipal affairs minister after an independent study said the Sydney-based municipality is facing a doubtful future.

The so-called viability study was done by the accounting firm Grant Thornton and cost the province about $240,000.

It says a declining population, shrinking revenues and increasing costs are hurting the municipality.

Mayor Cecil Clarke said the status quo is not an option.

“Even with an economic development plan, we will continue to lose population at the current rate, which means again, we have to have supports to stabilize and move towards that growth,” said Clarke.

“It’s very clear in (the report), the status quo means the municipality will basically not be able to operate.

“That’s the reality. If nothing happens, we will no longer be able to function as a municipality within a few years.”

Clarke said if the report’s recommendations are not acted on soon, the municipality can’t last.

“Then this community just keeps going backwards instead of moving forwards,” he said.

“We’re trying to put the brakes on this decline, and what you have to do if you’re going to have a growth strategy is you’ve got to look towards stability and this has always been an effort to (determine) how do we stabilize our community.”

The study makes 20 recommendations, including suggestions for ways to increase revenues, cut costs and attract more residents and businesses.

Grant Thornton’s Ricky Soni, the study’s author, told council the municipality can take some actions on its own, but it needs help to break the downward spiral.

Ricky Soni, author of Grant Thornton’s CBRM viability study, says it’s not realistic to expect the municipality to solve all its problems alone. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

“As a whole, the municipal government’s ability to resolve the region’s issues independently is not realistic,” he said.

The unemployment rate in CBRM last year was 16 per cent, Soni said, and the population is dropping by more than one per cent every year.

CBRM has cut services and expenses since Clarke was elected mayor in 2012. It has not raised the tax rate, but has relied on increased residential and commercial assessment values to increase revenues every year.

At the same time, the municipality has paid down a sizeable amount of its debt.

Police review recommended

Soni said one recommendation is for CBRM to review its police force, because it has one of the highest per-capita rates of officers for a community of its size.

“With the exception of the police (service) … there does not appear to be any exorbitant spending,” he said.

Another recommendation is to work with other levels of government to increase revenues and create policies that will reverse the region’s decline.

The mayor said he has already requested a meeting with Nova Scotia Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter.

There’s no word yet on when that might happen.

Minister declines interview

In an email to CBC, the department declined to make Porter available for an interview, saying the viability report belongs to CBRM.

“We support municipalities in their work to build strong and sustainable communities,” said a communications officer.

“This is why we are making a number of significant investments in infrastructure that will benefit CBRM.  We look forward to hearing more from CBRM about this report and its recommendations.”

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