Cape Breton Regional Municipality council once again ‘tilting at windmills’

The current Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) housing fiasco is not a new problem, but rather a sequel to last year’s tax-cut debacle.

Letter to the Editor, Cape Breton Post, March 17, 2023

The current Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) housing fiasco is not a new problem, but rather a sequel to last year’s tax-cut debacle.

Last May, against the urging of municipal staff, councillors went ahead with a property tax cut that carved nearly $4 million out of the municipal budget.

Dumbfounded by the community’s ensuing frustration, council lashed out, blaming municipal staff for their own ignorance (it was beyond the understanding of many councillors that Walmart and Loblaws paid property tax and would therefore be entitled to the biggest savings).

When Coun. James Edwards gingerly moved that council correct the mistake, the pro-cut council contingent lashed out again. Apparently, this council prefers to languish in its own failures than eat crow and move on.

Given council’s pattern of carelessness, the emergency meeting on March 10 shouldn’t have been so shocking. Most of us who supported the idea of a 24-unit residence for the homeless and housing insecure expected council to make a swift motion to approve the New Dawn proposal with some kind of amendment.

Instead, we saw councillors variously congratulating themselves, complaining about phone calls, lashing out at the province and CMHC, and otherwise ignoring public outrage while they patted themselves on the back for saving the day.

Several councillors took the time to proudly declare they wouldn’t change their vote if they were given another opportunity to send $5 million back to Ottawa. Like they did last year, councillors expressed breathless indignation that anyone would give them the power to make a substantive decision.

For its part, the proponent, New Dawn Enterprises, posted their entire application online hoping the community would agree that it is a worthy project. New Dawn has been a housing provider in the CBRM for nearly 40 years. Director of planning Michael Ruus, with over 10 years of experience in city planning, recommended council approve the project because it meets all of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) requirements.

Instead, six members of council – most of whom were unfamiliar with the details of the application – voted to return CBRM’s $5 million Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) allocation to Ottawa. Their reasons remain vague.

Council named several specific reasons why we, as a community, should not be making these kinds of decisions for ourselves. Among them were that:

• the province is in charge of housing;

• there was not enough time;

• council did not have information;

• CMHC is overly restrictive in its requirements;

• they “didn’t ask for this ($5 million grant].”

There are lots of plain reasons why these are not legitimate objections, but chief among them is this: municipalities half the size of CBRM and smaller are taking advantage of the RHI right now. They’ve announced projects with community partners that have clear and ambitious timelines. Municipalities like Whitehorse, Yukon; Orillia, Ont.; St. Thomas, Ont.; and Happy Valley Goose Bay, N.L., are well on their way to meeting the tight deadlines.

Some city governments saw RHI as an inspiring challenge. CBRM saw it as a burden. And like the kid who forgot his permission slip for the school field trip, CBRM now finds itself scrambling for special accommodation and last-minute fixes. While other municipalities are grinning for photo ops with their community partners, CBRM council is once again tilting at windmills.

Donald Calabrese