ARICHAT: Residential and commercial tax rates are each going up by one cent in Richmond County.

During a special meeting on June 2, Richmond Municipal Council approved a residential tax rate of $0.81 per $100 of assessment, and a commercial rate of $2.11.

Council also imposed an additional charge of 18 per cent per year on all rates and taxes that remain unpaid and imposed September 30 as the deadline for payment. Council agreed that after this date, the tax collector or treasurer can issue warrants for unpaid taxes.

According to a press release issued by the municipality on June 3, an increase of $120,000 for policing, education, and housing put “significant pressure” on councillors and staff.

The press release said council discussed increasing spending in infrastructure reserves, staffing and communities but with many residents facing a loss in income – combined with rising housing, food and energy costs – council decided to postpone some of these investments this year.

“We recognize that Richmond County has a high percentage of our population who are seniors faced with skyrocketing costs from food to house insurance during the pandemic – of course we’re concerned that they may have a limited ability to manage a higher tax hike at this time, and that impacts our ability to be an age-friendly community,” Warden Amanda Mombourquette noted. “Our business community has struggled to adapt, and we can’t forget about our cultural sector, and the many rotational workers who have seen their ability to earn dry up almost completely. So, council has taken an approach of making incremental increases in several areas to try to avoid a major increase in any one area. These are exceptional circumstances and exceptional times.”

The municipality said COVID-19 changed the non-profit landscape “dramatically” and many community groups have had little to no ability to raise funds for an extended period of time. The municipality said this budget builds on the work of the previous council by increasing investments for non-profits by approximately $100,000 in a combination of funds set aside for future grant applications and specific strategic investments in organizations such as Cape Breton South Recruiting for Health, the Senior Safety Coordinator, Strait Area Transit, local museums, food banks, and several others.

As far as reducing costs, Mombourquette referred to the elimination of the planned cost-of-living increase and the technology allowance for council, as well as a reduction in planned increases for staff. 

“This budget had to be very focused on providing support where it’s needed most. It results in staff and council standing in solidarity with constituents to keep the tax rate increase to a minimum,” noted Mombourquette . “I know how hard our councillors and staff have been working, so this has been an extremely difficult decision to reach. Staff, in particular, have ensured the continuity of municipal operations during the pandemic, and we all appreciate their effort. At the same time, it’s important that we pass a budget that builds trust in our municipal government; that we really are in this together.” 

District 5 Councillor Brent Sampson was the lone vote against the budget because he does not like the reversal of promised raises for municipal employees which was adopted after the municipality’s organizational review in 2017.

“We basically decided to change the pay scale that was agreed upon by council previously,” he said. “They decided to cut that budgeted amount in half. My concern with it, my problem with it, was that staff stepped up for the county, for the residents last year, and I thought they were sort of being disrespected by us now coming in, and seven months later, deciding that we’re not going to follow the pay scale that was adopted as policy.”

While he agrees that the Port Hawkesbury Volunteer Fire Department should cover that area, Sampson said the fact there is no fire levy being charged in Point Tupper is unfair.

“Not charging a fire levy in Point Tupper when I feel the rest of the residents of Richmond County are having to pick up that bill of $60,000, it’s something I think wouldn’t be fair,” he told council. “The fact that every other resident or business in the county is paying a fire levy on their tax rate, which are different from area to area, however, if it’s a resident or a business in Point Tupper, they have no fire levy at all. And yet, everybody else is sort of paying that tab for Port Hawkesbury to cover the area.”

After holding 10 budget meetings, then delaying its approval by a week, council heard from Chief Financial Officer Jason Martell who detailed the municipality’s $14,183,059 budget, which increased by $413,959 from last year.

Martell said there was a 2.3 per cent increase in the residential assessment tax roll, a 1.3 per cent hike in resource assessments and a decrease in commercial assessment revenue of 0.3 per cent.

As far as mandatory contributions compared to last year, Martell said corrections and jail went down $1,913, education went up $17,033, contributions for roads to the province increased $1,160, police protection went up by $76,300, capped assessment rose by $4,714, and Property Valuation Services Corporation costs dropped by $3,976.

Compared to last year’s budget, the CFO noted that tax revenue increased by $340,098 due to hikes in assessment, the Deed Transfer Tax, and in sewer revenues. There was a decrease of $10,706 in federal and provincial grants in lieu, mainly due to the drop in the grant in lieu from Nova Scotia Power, he said.

Other revenue has gone up by $54,967, Martell said, pointing to increases in interest revenue, tipping fees and recreation revenue due to COVID-19.

Revenue from recreation and cultural services went down by $157,982, Martell explained.

“Last year we reduced the revenue some because some of our programming was shut down for an extended period of time,” he explained. “Due to COVID last year, our revenue and expenses in the recreation department arena were significantly affected. And there was also no Canada Day. It’s not that the recreation budget has gone up, it’s just that, if you were to compare it to the prior year before last year, you would see a very stable increase or decrease in the numbers. It’s just COVID that’s affecting those numbers.”

There was a rise in transfers from other governments of $15,600, which Martell said is attributed to an increase in student funding projected for this year.

There will be an increase of $14,000 in the St. Peter’s levy, which he said happens regularly due to increases in assessment, but last year, the St. Peter’s Village Commission changed the rate from $0.24 to $0.26.

On the expense side, there is a decrease of $52,310 in general government services because there is no municipal election this year, the CFO noted.

Martell reported there is an increase of $121,087 in protective services, helped by rising policing costs, as well as rises in fire and community improvement levies.

In transportation services, Martell confirmed a hike of $8,160 due to a small increase in roads and costs for streetlights.

There will be an increase of $16,671 in environmental health services over last year, Martell stated, which was balanced by a decrease in the landfill closure transfer to reserve funds. Curbside collection costs have gone down, which was offset by increases in the compost facility study, he noted.

Martell said public health and welfare services increased by $31,517 due to the larger deficit from the Cape Breton Island Housing Authority. He said environmental development services have gone up $116,852 from an increase in funding contributions and the fact the Visitor Information Centre in St. Peter’s did not open last year.

Overall, the municipality is recording a total change in revenues of $413,959 and total expenditures of $413,959, for a balanced budget, the CFO told council.

“We’re seeing a year-over-year increase, like I just mentioned, in funding contributions of $106,695,” Martell noted. “That is not all new money, in the sense that there was a smaller contribution last year to (Strait Area Transit), as an example due to COVID, so that has gone back up a little bit. Also there was a group that was funded in the amount of $25,000 that was funded in a different way, so now it’s considered new money.”

The budget also includes a building condition assessment audit for the former West Richmond Education Centre in Evanston of $12,500, plans to re-open the St. Peter’s VIC at $16,000, Canada Day funding for 2021 of $10,450, strategic plan funding of $17,000, increases in arena ice rental rates, increases in waste management facility tipping fees, the amalgamation of the four sewer systems into one, new dry fire hydrant funding of $10,000, and an in-flow and infiltration study for the Petit de Grat sewer system in the amount of $40,000, which the municipality is seeking funding for under the Provincial Capital Assessment Program.

In the capital investment plan, the CFO said the municipality budgeted for a new vehicle purchase, an equipment trailer purchase in the amount of $12,500, a $40,000 accessibility study, and council chamber upgrades of $10,000.

In the five-year capital investment plan, Martell said there is a $20,000 trail plan study, funding for half of a broadband cell tower project in Dundee at a cost of $225,000, adding a building at Point Michaud Beach for $40,000, another $40,000 for trail rehabilitation and improvements, a $3.6 million wastewater project, and a compost facility leachate treatment study in the amount of $20,000.

Council also approved the following area rates: St. Peter’s Volunteer Fire Department nine cents; West Bay Road Volunteer Fire Department 10 cents; L’Ardoise and Area Volunteer Fire Department 16 cents; Grand River Volunteer Fire Department 15 cents; Loch Lomond Volunteer Fire Department 15 cents; Louisdale and Area Volunteer Fire Department 10 cents; Framboise and Forchu Volunteer Fire Departments 15 cents; Isle Madame Volunteer Fire Department 11 cents; District 10 fire department 15 cents; the former District 2 community rate of four cents; and the former District 4 community rate of one cent.

Meanwhile, the St. Peter’s Village Commission must submit their rate to the municipality by July 31.