Yesterday, a hopeful candidate for the next provincial election asked me the following question, “Anna, would you be willing to write a list of ways that the provincial government can make it easier for small businesses to succeed in Nova Scotia?”
I dropped to my knees, broke down in tears and through messy sobs of joy muttered, “You mean….. you mean, you actually want to speak directly to a small business owner to understand how to make things better? Wouldn’t you rather just hire consultants and create an economic development committee of billionaires? “ Once I moved past my initial shock, I rose to my feet, blew my nose and pulled the following list out of my pocket. You see, I have been walking around for eight years just waiting for someone to ask me this question.
I will reveal that it was an NDP hopeful who relieved me of the list in my pocket, but I am sharing it here, incase the Liberals or Conservatives would also care to listen. As small business owners, we are ready to accept help across party lines. Here’s my list.
1-Please stop taxing small home-based businesses with commercial property taxes.
Yes, in Nova Scotia, even in exclusively residential zones, PVSC can and will assess the portion of your home used for the business with a commercial property tax rate. This rule applies to every home-based business, including home offices, with only one exception – Bed and Breakfast establishments of four rooms or less. If your home-based business is not being taxed with a commercial property tax rate, it is because PVSC does not know about you. However, they are trying to find you and if they do, you will get a significant increase on your property taxes. Let me try to explain how damaging this rule is.
Imagine that a hat maker has hired a Syrian Refugee to sew hats in his own home. Now, let’s say this man is succeeding and heads over to Town Hall to apply for a development permit and a sign permit. One year later his landlord will find that his property taxes have significantly increased. Uh oh….What’s a landlord to do? Increase the family’s rent or tell the man that he cannot run his business in his home? Both options are equally bad. Welcome to Nova Scotia. Landlords frequently avoid this scenario by prohibiting home businesses. Business owners avoid an increase in property taxes by not applying for development permits. Everybody loses. Most home-based businesses stay underground to avoid burdensome regulation. If regulation is avoided it benefits no one. Municipalities end up with unpermitted and potentially unsafe businesses and business growth has been prevented.
There’s a very simple solution. Amend the provincial tax legislation to state that home-based businesses that use less than 25% of the home are assessed with only residential property taxes. It’s already been done for bed and breakfasts. When the business grows they will either move to the commercial zone or pay commercial property taxes on the portion of their home used for the business.
All across Nova Scotia there are beautiful, abandoned churches, fire halls, homes and other heritage buildings just waiting for some creative entrepreneur to breathe new life into them. Many starry-eyed business owners have considered buying such properties only to discover this little thing called, “Change of Occupancy Classification.” This means that if what was once a church (assembly) becomes a sewing store (mercantile) all the barrier free access rules in the building code will apply. Now, don’t misunderstand me. This is a very good thing. We want to work towards a province that is accessible to all. But the cost of the renovations is often a non-starter. So, many of these beautiful buildings remain beautiful, but empty souvenirs of days gone by. If the province were to provide accessibility grants to businesses wanting to restore these old buildings, it would revitalize rural Nova Scotia while simultaneously preserving heritage buildings. Good for business, good for tourism, good for heritage and good for people.
I’m scared to mention the Ivany report. It’s almost like confessing that you still believe in Santa Claus. But there was this little line in there that spoke to me, “We can do it ourselves.” In the murky world of economic development, focus tends to gaze outwards. If only we could attract this business or that business all our problems would go away. Meanwhile, you have small to medium sized local businesses that are jumping up and down shouting, “Hey, over here! I’m doing it already. If you wouldn’t mind just throwing a tiny bit of money this way, I could hire someone, or expand.” All across this province there are small businesses that are succeeding. Look for them and then talk to them. Ask them what they need to grow. It’s usually not that much. Invest in people that already love Nova Scotia. They are the ones committed to making it work. Nothing against Ikea or Target, but when the going gets tough, they will hold no allegiance to this province. Supporting small, local businesses is diversifying your investment. If one doesn’t make it, they don’t take down a whole community with them.
4- Put the answers in one place.
There are many steps to opening a business. It’s very frustrating for business owners to walk in circles trying to understand what they need to do in order to be in compliance. Often businesses are opened that do not have the proper permits; not because of negligence, but because no one has explained to them what is necessary. It’s not uncommon for a fire marshal to give one directive and a building inspector to give another one. We need to create a culture of communication between various departments, between the province and its municipalities and between the municipalites themselves. It’s unacceptable to have 51 interpretations of a rule in one tiny province. I have more than once been asked for advice by prospective business owners. When businesses are seeking out regulatory advice from the local hat maker, we know we have a problem. It needs to be someone’s job, at the provincial level to help new businesses navigate the system.
5- Regulation needs to come in small, medium and large.
This particularly applies to food handlers. I have heard from many food vendors who cannot prepare food in their own kitchens. They are asked to install commercial kitchen in order to meet health and safety standards. I am not anti-regulation. Regulation is a good thing, but Grandma baking cookies in her kitchen to sell at the local Farmers market should not be facing the same rules as a restaurant. Safety comes in different sizes. We don’t require a person knitting socks in her home to have a sprinkler system; why does someone baking 200 cookies a week need a commercial kitchen?
6- Home Business in Public Housing.
This is an issue that I know nothing about, but as a province we need to look into this. New public housing rules prohibit home businesses. When I first heard of this rule, I assumed it was because of municipal land use regulations, but Public Housing is owned by the province. If we want to lift people out of poverty we need to allow them to run small, appropriate businesses from their homes. Someone sewing or cutting hair creates no safety hazard. People working from home keeps parents with their children and keeps communities safer.
So, there you have it. I hand over my list to the politicians. Thanks so much for asking. That piece of paper was getting heavy.