By Richard Bell
Residents living in or near Musquodoboit Harbour will be getting a rare opportunity to vote to retain or end a small tax dedicated to improving local recreational opportunities and facilities. This little-known tax, called a local area rate, appears on property tax bills under the name, “Musquodoboit Hbr Common Rec.” The rate is a very low half-penny per $100 ($0.005).
The amounts of money involved are small, but the upcoming vote is already producing some interesting discussions about the history of this tax and how it has been administered to date, whether control should pass from Councillor David Hendsbee’s hands into a representative community organization, and even whether the rate should be higher.
Resolving these issues is more pressing in light of a planned request by the Musquodoboit Harbour & Area Chamber of Commerce & Civic Affairs for three projects that would consume most of the money that has accumulated from this tax.
The County of Halifax adopted this local area rate in the late 1980s, initially to pay for the installation of lights at the baseball field, and to pay the electric bills for operating those lights. This year, the MHCR will bring in $10,475, in addition to $30,620 that has accrued from previous years (for a total of $41,095). The catchment area where this rate is applied includes 1,888 residential and resource properties, mostly along East Petpeswick, West Petpeswick, and Ostrea Lake Roads.
Managing the Funds
HRM staff have been pushing to eliminate local area rates. With the exception of Musquodoboit Harbour and Hammonds Plains, all other communities have a ratepayers association or homeowners association that submits an annual business plan for spending that year’s local area rate taxes. But in Musquodoboit Harbour, there is no such community-decision making body. Instead, all requests go to District 2 Councillor David Hendsbee, who decides which requests to put before the Harbour East—Marine Drive Community Council, which has the ultimate authority to approve or reject Hendsbee’s recommendations.
Hendsbee made a formal presentation on the upcoming vote at a September 20th meeting of the Musquodoboit Harbour & Area Chamber of Commerce & Civic Association, and repeated this slide show on October 17, 2017 at a special meeting of the Musquodoboit Harbour & Area Community Association. He identified three recent expenditures from the rate: the junior sailing program at the Petpeswick Yacht Club, picnic tables for the Peace Park, and the Chamber of Commerce’s Community Development Plan prepared by the consulting firm Ekistics Plan + Design. At the October 17 meeting, Hendsbee said that he was still trying to identify earlier expenditures from the fund.
The Chamber’s Pending Proposal
At the October 5 meeting of the Harbour East—Marine Drive Community Council, Chamber of Commerce president Kent Smith made a 10-minute presentation updating the Council on the Chamber’s Community Development Plan. At the conclusion, Smith said that the Chamber would be submitting a request in the future for the Community Council to approve spending $35,000 from the MHCR fund’s $41,095 on three projects: $19,979+HST to Ekistics for “200 hours of design time to generate working drawings;” $10,000 to “create and implement a branding strategy;” and $5,000 for upgrades to the Railway Museum and grounds.
Preparing to Vote
At the October 17 meeting, Hendsbee said that he was working with staff from HRM’s Taxation and Revenue department on putting the vote together, and hoped to hold the vote before the end of November.
“There will be one vote per property,” Hendsbee explained on October 17. “As for renters and landlords, whoever gets the property tax bill gets that vote. If you’re a seasonal resident and you’re getting a tax bill, you get a vote.” He said the ballot would come with a short explanation of the issue.
Hendsbee said that he and staff were still working through some of the methodological hurdles inherent in such votes. “We’re going to send a ballot to everyone on the tax roll. But then lots of those will come back because of bad addresses. We’ve got to decide what the response period will be. And we will want to have a secure drop off box for ballots, maybe at the municipal office or the Old School.”
One of the problem areas is establishing a reasonable response rate. “If we only get a handful of responses, then we’re going to have to assume that it’s not an issue people care about very much.”
As to whether a community group should be in charge of spending the funds from the tax, Hendsbee said that there would have to be another vote, assuming that the vote goes in favour of retaining the tax.
“I don’t live in the catchment area, so I don’t pay the tax,” Hendsbee said. “But if there’s a reasonable response rate and it’s split down the middle, I’ll probably lean towards keeping it.”
However Hendsbee also noted that the ultimate decision about whether to accept or reject the results of the vote lies in the hands of the Regional Council, regardless of the outcome of the vote.