Legislation favouring port development in CBRM criticized in Strait Region

Chamber, MODG, Melford say changes create uneven playing field

By Helen Murphy    

GUYSBOROUGH – Giving one municipal unit a competitive advantage over another for business development is dangerous territory for a provincial government, but that’s exactly where the McNeil Liberals have ventured this past week.

The province announced changes to the Municipal Government Act on March 8 that it says will help spur business development in the Port of Sydney. Those changes, if approved in the legislature, will give Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) the power to sell and lease property for less than market value and provide tax concessions to Sydney Harbour Investment Partners Incorporated, a commercial entity that has exclusive development rights for a container terminal and logistics park in the Port of Sydney.

The proposed changes prompted sharp criticism from Melford International Terminal, which plans to build an international container terminal at the Strait of Canso.

“We paid millions of dollars to buy land from MODG and the province at fair market value,” Melford’s VP of Marketing, Richie Mann, told The Journal. He said the province “drove a hard deal” on that transaction and he was incredulous that with these changes, “someone competing with us is able to sell land at less than market value and offer tax concessions.”

“It appears (the government) only wants development in Halifax and Sydney.”

Mann said Melford Terminal had met with the premier earlier and was assured that the province “would not do anything to create an uneven playing field.”

He said he hopes that elected officials in the Strait Area will speak out against the proposed changes, which are to be voted on in second reading at the legislature and then go to the law amendments committee for review.

“How do you compete with someone who can give land away and give tax concessions?” Mann asked. “You can compete with anybody, but you can’t compete with government.”

Mann says the move also sends a bad signal to anyone interested in doing business in Nova Scotia. “You can’t attract business when you’re messing around with stuff like this.”

When asked by The Journal about this legislation creating an uneven playing field, Minister of Municipal Affairs Derek Mombourquette said the government is open to hearing proposals from any municipality about advancing economic development. He said CBRM went through a public consultation process and then submitted a request to Municipal Affairs for these changes.

“We had a municipality come forward looking for certain tools to use,” said Mombourquette. “We’re open to discussion with any municipality.”

He said the proposed changes are about “municipal modernization” and are consistent with the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter.

The Strait Area Chamber of Commerce says these changes are designed “to pit one region of our province against the other.” In a letter to members, the Chamber said the bill “could result in CBRM having the kind of economic development incentives at their disposal that have not been seen since the 1990s in Nova Scotia — a time when every region of the province worked against each other in a race to the bottom using tax exemptions, land give-aways, and a host of other unsustainable practices.”

The Municipality of the District of Guysborough also expressed its displeasure at the proposed changes in a statement issued March 9. “The current Municipal Governance Act was designed to provide a “level playing field”, avoiding investment decisions based on which Nova Scotia municipality provides the greatest amount of government incentives. The proposed Act will have the opposite effect,” it said.

While MODG says these changes are not in the interests of municipalities, it states that any amendments to the Act should apply equally to all municipalities.

MODG council held an emergency meeting to discuss the issue on the morning of March 9 and voted unanimously to write to Minister Mombourquette to ask him “to provide the Municipality of the District of Guysborough with all those same rights and privileges as have been proposed to provide CBRM through an amendment of Chapter 18 of the Acts of 1998, the Municipal Government Act,” said Warden Vernon Pitts.

“Current proposed major projects in our municipality are based on sound business cases, and not on direct or indirect subsidies from government, and it’s unfortunate now that we have to go down this road just to keep a level playing field for potential future projects,” said Pitts.