By Richard Bell
Since the first time I set foot in Musquodoboit Harbour in 2008, I have heard people speaking with envy of the sidewalks that run from one bridge to the other in Sheet Harbour. The Sheet Harbour sidewalks are pleasing aesthetically, and every time I’ve been there, I’ve been struck that there were people out using them, walking, biking, and pushing baby carriages.
And every study that anyone has commissioned over the last two decades about improving civic life in Porters Lake or Musquodoboit Harbour has included a recommendation for building sidewalks along the commercial corridors in both places.
But HRM’s recent proposal to raise taxes to pay for sidewalks has already generated two standing-room only meetings in Porters Lake, with people cursing and yelling at city officials, followed by wave after wave of angry posts on community Facebook pages. It is possible that there will be more of the same at the two 2 community sessions on January 31 in Musquodoboit Harbour at the Community Centre (the Rink), 1:30 to 3:30pm, and 6:00 to 8:00pm. (You can watch the January 22 Porters Lake evening session on the Cooperator’s page on Facebook. The Cooperator will post video from one of the Musquodoboit sessions.)
I spoke with several people in Sheet Harbour about how their community agreed to an area rate to pay for their sidewalks. Peter Stein, former chair of the Sheet Harbour Chamber of Commerce. moved to Sheet Harbour after the sidewalks were built; in fact, seeing the sidewalks was one of the things that convinced him to move there. He knew there had been opposition. “But now, people love their sidewalks,” Stein said. “If you wanted to take the sidewalks out now, people would stop you!”
The proposed tax for sidewalks in Porters Lake and Musquodoboit Harbour is a top-down process, driven by Administrative Order 2022-008-ADM: Respecting the Implementation of Area Rates to Fund Sidewalks Outside of the Urban Tax Area in the Halifax Regional Municipality, adopted on February 7, 2023. As far as I know, there was no public consultation in the preparation of this order. And embedded in the heart of this document was the provision that has generated the most heat, “Section 7, Amount of Area Rate, ‘The area rate shall be equal to the difference between the urban and rural residential tax rates.’”
At the evening public meeting in Porters Lake on January 22, HRM officials struggled to explain why, other than the sentence in the Administrative Order 2022-008-ADM, it was necessary to raise the rural rate all the way up to the urban rate to fund the sidewalks.
In Sheet Harbour, the sidewalk-building initiative came from the bottom up. There was no Administrative Order 2022-008-ADM. I spoke with Wayne Malay, who was one of the organizers of getting sidewalks in Sheet Harbour. “The sidewalks weren’t even planned,” Malay said in a phone interview. “We were going to build a community centre, but the problem was there were no sidewalks for people to walk there.”
Malay said they managed to get financial support from all three levels of government, and that there was never any mention of raising their rural tax rate to the urban level. “We heard from people in Ecum Secum and Tangier who didn’t want to pay, but they mostly came around. I live 15 kilometers away, but I saw the value, for safety and from the economic point of view. When you’re driving down the Shore, you’re not expecting to see sidewalks. Now that they are done, people walk them every day, take them for granted.”
Malay noted that they had gone from one area rate for the whole area to a three-zone model, with people in the core of Sheet Harbour paying the highest rate, with lower rates for the two outer zones.
At the Porters Lake sessions, people raised several issues that will likely be brought up at the Musquodoboit Harbour sessions:
- Why did rural areas have to pay for sidewalks at all? At Porters Lake, one person noted that the HRM website had a sentence in it that explicitly stated that sidewalks were included in rural taxes. The response from staff was that this sentence was “a mistake.”
- Why had Council ordered the rural tax rate to be raised to the urban tax rate in its Administrative Order on funding rural sidewalks in the first place?
- Would the increased revenues be going into a dedicated account that could only be spent on sidewalks and related expenses?
- Regardless of what the area rate was, why was it necessary for the tax increase to be “in perpetuity”?
- Assuming that the tax increase was “in perpetuity,” and assuming that the funds were going into a dedicated account, would Council designate a community-based non-profit to oversee spending the funds accumulating in that account after the sidewalks were paid for, or would Council control the funds?
- If the sidewalks had been paid off, could Council then amend Administrative Order 2022-008-ADM to lower the tax rate to a level that would fund sidewalk maintenance costs, or have HRM take on the cost of sidewalk maintenance?
- Why were there no other options on the table? At the Porters Lake evening session, HRM staff presented their proposal as an all-or-nothing deal. Staff said they were out gathering community responses, which would be included in a report to Council, after which Council would vote on accepting or rejecting the staff report. No one from HRM staff suggested that staff or Council was interested in, or would even entertain, some kind of public negotiation process that could generate alternatives acceptable to the community that staff could recommend to Council.
February 15 Deadline for Public Comments
If you cannot make it to one of the sessions in Musquodoboit Harbour, you can fill out an online survey by going to the HRM “engagement hub,” registering, and then filling out the survey. You can also get a paper copy of the survey by calling Emma Martin at 902.490.4920 or emailing [email protected].