Monday, May 30, 2016

Why I dream of amalgamation - We see things differently

Anyone who knows me knows that I have no love for big anything.  If you want to witness the transformation of a happy hat maker into a raving, miserable and bitter ranter, take me to a fast food restaurant, shopping mall or a big box store.  I have never been to Costco and I have no plans to go. Yet, I dream of amalgamation in rural Nova Scotia.  I love the idea of small government, but I don't love the reality. Here's why.

Before bringing the challenges I was facing as a home based business owner to the public, I brought my concerns to the mayor and CAO of our town and I did it privately. I brought with me the man whose job it is to oversee everything to do with the building code and planning in Halifax. He came with me as a friend on his own time, but brought with him thirty years of experience.  After a two hour meeting, our CAO said, "We see things differently."  and that was the end of the meeting.

This was the beginning of what was to become an epic undertaking.  I began by phoning building inspectors in many different municipalities in rural Nova Scotia and I learned two things.  Firstly, people want to help and secondly, they all saw things differently. Every municipality had a different interpretation of the same rule.  I also learned that communication between departments was non-existent and communication between municipalities was non-existent.  Officials were operating in silos and no one dared to step on anyone's toes.  I also learned that the province does not wish to step on a municipality's toes.  As far as many rural municipalities were concerned, this was a provincial issue, but as far as the province was concerned this was a municipal issue.  It is the business owners that pay the price for this lack of communication and the words, we see things differently.

Now, over in HRM there is a Manager of Municipal Compliance and there is a Manager of Development approvals.  They work side by side.  These two people work together to oversee every permit that comes into the city.  Every planner and every building inspector needs to have the same understanding and there is constant communication between the building and planning departments.  That's not to say that mistakes won't happen, but when they do there is a chain of responsibility that can be followed back to the top. So, like the rules or don't like the rules, the rules are understood.

Right now I know of two home-based businesses in Lunenburg that still cannot move forward.  A few months waiting for clarification might seem like no big deal for a municipal employee who is receiving a pay check, but for a small business owner, a few months can be the difference between success and failure. These people will not come forward because in a small town, things like rules are taken personally.  They know that they can be targeted for speaking up.

Even as  I write this blog, I am aware that such a seemingly innocuous thing as talking about amalgamation can have a personal effect on me and my family. When your government is also your neighbour things that should not be personal become personal. 

Over and over, I hear the argument against amalgamation.  The larger the bureaucracy the less efficient it becomes.  O.K.  I can buy that.  But at what point does that statement become true?  Is a government for 100 people more efficient than a government for 200 people?    In rural Nova Scotia, we are not talking about amalgamating five small governments into one large government.  We are talking about amalgamating five tiny governments into one small government.  It will be easier for the province to communicate with an amalgamated government.  It will be easier for a citizen to communicate with an amalgamated government.  Real communication and engagement breaks down when things become personal and in tiny governments everything is personal.

 It will be easier for entrepreneurs to establish businesses when they do not have to confront the words, 'We see things differently.' Those words are beautiful when applied to visions of  community or business or art, but when applied to rules, they are just plain ugly.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Local Business, Affordable Housing and Climate Change - Connecting the Dots

Every morning my dog, Lego, takes me for a walk.  Today I noticed Craig arriving for work, on foot, at Ironworks distillery,   Craig lives in New Town, so I know he had a nice, brisk, twenty minute walk to work.  Then I headed up King st. to see Jason arrive to work on his bicycle at The Laughing Whale Coffee Roasters.  That's two people that did not get into a car today.

Back tracking to last night, I was chatting with my neighbours, Jerri and Dave, as they were swinging on their locally made Porch Swing.   (Full disclosure, my husband made that.)   They were telling me about how as they leave town for work in Halifax every morning, they see many cars coming into town.  Some of those cars are driven by people that work in town and would like to live in town, but can't find affordable housing.

The Town of Lunenburg has been identified as one of the Unesco Heritage sites at risk from Climate Change.  You can read about it in this CBC article, Climate change threatens world heritage sites.
So, local businesses are taking the lead. People are making positive change happen.  The efforts of small business owners are keeping cars off the roads.  Every person that runs a business in a small town is part of the solution. But what is government doing to help local businesses thrive? What policies are they creating to encourage people to work from home?  What policies are they creating to revitalize our main streets? What policies are they creating to ensure that all those people driving into town for work can also live in town?

Dave was telling me about something he had heard of, somewhere,  (I'm a blogger, not an investigative reporter, so that's as factual as we are going to get)  where landlords who own commercial store fronts were given tax incentives if they rented out the living space above their shops.  That got me thinking.  If you look above the shops on Lincoln st. and Montague st. you'll see apartments. In fact, the zoning of our commercial district was created to encourage Lunenburg's long history of live/work.  (Yes, I have spent many hours reading about the policies behind our zoning.)  The thing is, some of those spaces are unused.  I have been in a couple of them.  This is where local and provincial government can step in.

We know we have a housing crisis.  We know we have a climate crisis.  We know that cars contribute to climate change. What can government do to incentivize landlords to turn those spaces into affordable housing?  What can government do to help people work from home?  What can government do to give a boost to entrepreneurs who are creating local jobs and revitalizing downtowns?

On a separate, but related topic, I had a visit last weekend from the mayor of Barrie, Ontario, Jeff Lehman.

Jeff is a forward thinking, progressive Mayor.  We talked a lot about the importance of supporting home-based business and it's important function as an incubator.  But what I found truly inspiring was listening to him talk about how much a municipality can actually accomplish. Those words were music to my ears.  It seems some times that governments love to talk about what is out of their control.  It was particularly depressing to watch small municipal governments in Nova Scotia give away the ownership of something that was actually completely in their control.  (Every municipality has the prime authority to create their own planning and what uses are permitted in a home falls within planning.)  Municipal governments could be doing so much to reverse climate change.  This is not happening.  They are not claiming responsibility.

Entrepreneurs are busy doing what needs to be done to create a more environmentally friendly world.  Now it's time for both local and provincial government to encourage local business and affordable housing with supportive policies.

Monday, May 23, 2016

An Ode to Jim

When my home based business battle reached the public eye, someone wrote on my blog, 'First one through the wall gets a bloody face.'  or something like that.  In those early days, I didn't really feel the weight of those words, but I do now.  I met my brick wall of resistance and it wasn't pretty, but through the ugliness I discovered something truly beautiful.  There will always be people who stick their necks out to help you.  I have such a long list of strangers and friends who took the time to talk to me or come to meetings or drive me to do presentations, or stay married to me,  or even just to listen to me drone on about land use.  But at the very top of the list, in his very own stratosphere, is Jim.

Let me tell you a little bit about Jim.  It's Jim's job to oversee everything to do with the building code in HRM. Think of the library.  Think of the Nova Centre.  Love or hate all that development, you gotta imagine that the person at the top probably knows a little bit about the building code.  Jim is even an author of the national building code.

This is the guy that over the course of two years has probably answered 5,623 of my questions.  This is the guy that, on his own dime, drove down to explain to me that Home Occupation Bylaws were written so that a house could still be a house and not a commercial occupancy.  This is the guy that, on his own dime, tried to help me politely explain to the town that there was just a simple administrative error happening, and when that didn't go so well, this was the guy that helped me write a presentation and come up with the simplest of solutions for the province to fix this error.  (they didn't listen and took the hard road, but that's another story) This is the guy that stuck by my side for two bloody years and gave me the strength to keep fighting.   This is the guy that taught me about 'the ethical application of rules'  This is the guy that when my own council said 'our hands are tied' just kept on helping me.  This is the guy that truly championed my cause.  If anyone wants to learn what it means to be a champion of the arts, go meet Jim.

My greatest lesson, throughout this ordeal, was not that there is pettiness in the world.  My greatest lesson was learning that there are people that help; people that are motivated by doing the right thing. My greatest lesson was learning that there will always be people like Jim. 100% Bullshit free.  That is Jim.

There isn't really any way to repay this kind of kindness, but a personalized Mariko mug was the best compensation I could think of.  Check out Mariko's web site.    Here are a few more shots of this masterpiece.

Friday, May 20, 2016

It's Easier to Support the Arts Than To Support Artists.

Full disclosure.  I'm angry at my local government.  I'm trying to let it go.  It's getting easier, but I'm not there yet.  I call it Building Code Occupancy Classification Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It's the most boring form of PTSD imaginable.  I'll be walking outside, enjoying the unparalleled beauty that is Lunenburg, enjoying all the wonderful people that live in this community, admiring the spring flowers, making a hat and then suddenly, I'm in my own private war zone.  My head becomes filled with dry facts.  Facts about Occupancy Classification, zoning bylaws and barrier free provisions. And then I start to talk about it with friends and family and I see their eyes glaze over and sometimes I go on for fifteen minutes before I realize that they are sleeping. Since the province came to the rescue with this building code amendment it is getting much better, but I'm still easily triggered.

Usually the trigger is some article that gets it all wrong or hearing comments from Lunenburg Council regarding their "concern" for the disabled not being able to access tiny little Home Based Businesses, but somehow they were never concerned enough to improve the general accessibility of the town.  But this article drove me to drink.

I want to be really careful here.  You see, every time I try to talk about my experience in Lunenburg, council sees it as an attack.  Some people see it as just negative and quickly cover it up with videos of kittens and there are some that feel that council and the community need to really talk this out.  I know that we are all human and I even believe that Mayor Bailey wishes to support the arts in Lunenburg and I am sure in some ways she does actually support the arts, but supporting the arts includes supporting the artists.

This problem goes beyond the boundaries of Lunenburg, but Lunenburg is where I live and it is the community I most care about.  Mayor Bailey says in the article, "It requires planting seeds and cultivating them by being champions of it as municipal leaders....."  But that was not my experience with my municipal leaders and it has not been the experience of many of my local artist friends. How can anyone understand how to champion artists, if they won't listen to what the artists need to survive here?

In order to champion artists, local governments need to take the time to meet the artists that have chosen their town, understand the financial realities of being an artist and understand their value to the community.  Local governments need to understand how  being told to make renovations to their homes or having to pay commercial property taxes on their residential properties can put artists out of business or force them to move elsewhere.  I'd like to say that most artists survive paycheck to paycheck, but there is no paycheck.  Money comes in sporadically, expenses come when there is no income and it's just bloody hard to make a go of it. We generally don't have things like life insurance or  dental insurance.  We don't have things like paid vacations.   Being an artist means living with financial insecurity.  So, do local governments understand what value artists have to their communities?   If our value is understood then it's the job of councils to create policies that support us.  Things like applying commercial taxes to home based businesses are not supportive.

I can hear it already, Our hands are tied.  Yes, I know this is a provincial policy and I will try to draw the provincial government's attention to how unsupportive this policy is to artists,  but what if my local government decided to champion this cause on our behalf.  Minister Churchill has heard nothing from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities regarding tax rates.  So far, there is no municipal leader who is going to bat for their artists. If there was, I would be the first to call that strong leadership and being a champion of the arts.

Lunenburg has grown a strong arts community because of local artists and local businesses who are making it happen.  Being a governmental champion of the arts is different than being a cheer leader.  It means doing the hard work in the council chambers to change laws that might be burdensome to artists. It means being open to supportive interpretations of existing laws.   It means creating policies that protect artists.  It means ensuring we have affordable housing. It means being willing to hear criticism and not shut down dialogue.  It means acknowledging that just because you have not experienced a problem doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  When I see this happen, I will be the first to be a cheerleader of local government.

The photo is one of Mariko Paterson's beautiful ceramic pieces.  One of the many artists that was not championed by her local government.  She went to Halifax.

Friday, May 13, 2016

What a Mess

Well, the good news is that the province amended the building code so that Home-based business owners don't need to spend their children's education funds to turn their homes into commercial occupancies.  The bad news is that it really doesn't matter.  No home based business owner in their right mind is going to come up from the underground if they know that the minute they do they will be dinged with commercial property taxes. We have no hope of growing our small business community until we realize that charging home-business owners commercial property taxes is a horrible idea.

Do you earn $8,000 a year painting pictures?  Are you a writer with a separate home office? Are you a consultant, translator, potter or hairdresser?  This means you, too.  It does not make a damn difference if anyone comes into your house or if you hang a sign.  It only matters that you are a self employed person working from home in a separate room.  Trust me on this one.  If you don't believe me call PVSC.   Now, raise your hand if you plan to tell your municipality that you operate a home based business.........I'm waiting........Right, that's what I thought.  You are having a hard enough time paying $20 for a bunch of grapes.  Not ready to spend another $700/yr on property taxes?  I totally understand.  Don't do it.  It's even worse than you think.

You see, when real commercial properties in real commercial zones are taxed, they get to factor in how much income the building generates into the equation.  But in a residential zone you don't get to do that.  So, let's say that there is an owner occupied business on the busiest street in town and they just aren't making much money yet, well they can use their lack of income to adjust the assessed value of their property.  Meanwhile, the room in your house used for your business is taxed only on the residential value of your home.  So, your little sock knitting business in your home, way out on the outskirts of town, where you have to shovel your own street,  might actually be paying more commercial property tax per square foot than a business in the heart of the commercial zone.

Even without this income adjustment it's a big mess.  If you are being charged commercial taxes, you should be able to compare your business to other businesses to make sure that your taxes are fair.  But guess what?  You can't.  You can only compare your business to other homes in your neighbourhood.  So, if the airplane parts manufacturer is paying less per square foot than your little start up, there's not a thing you can do about it.

So, who is winning here?  Are the municipalities winning?  How many permitted home businesses are there?  How many unpermitted home businesses are there?  Are municipalities actually making any significant amount of money on the handful of home businesses that are operating legally?  I won't leave you hanging.  The answer is no.  I'd be surprised if there are five permitted home businesses in Lunenburg, Trying to find all these hidden businesses, so that commercial property taxes can be applied isn't going to work either.  That will put people out of business.  That's a bad thing, by the way. 

You know that expression forward thinking?  That is what is required here.  Support  businesses when they are small and you give them a chance to grow.   Look ten years into the future.  What we are doing now is penny wise and pound foolish.  There is a real, honest to goodness crisis in Nova Scotia.  The old folks are dying, the young folks are leaving and new people aren't coming fast enough to replace them.  It's time for government to look past the tips of their noses.  Our tax legislation needs to say the same thing as our lovely new building code amendment.   Houses that use less than 25% of the home for a business are residential uses only.  We did it for Bed and Breakfasts, now let's do it for all the rest of us and for the future of Nova Scotia.  Sheesh. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Keep Your Eye On The Yellow Line

Oh the things you'll find looking through council minutes.  This projected population chart for the Town of Lunenburg was presented to Lunenburg council by the South Shore Housing Action Coalition, a citizen group bringing much needed attention to the fact that The South Shore of Nova Scotia has a housing crisis going on. Full time rentals are very hard to come by and this makes it difficult for young families to move to Lunenburg County. Many homes are owned by people that use these houses as vacation homes for a few weeks of the year.  Fine for municipal coffers, but not fine for the community.   As you can see by the chart, we really, really need young families. The yellow line represents people between the ages of 35-64.  People of working age. Following current trends this number will decrease to 398 residents in 20 years.  The total population of the town of Lunenburg is projected to decrease to 1947 people. It is a similar scenario for the whole county.

I'm not posting this to be the voice of doom and gloom.  I'm posting this because every decision made in our town needs to be made with this reality in mind.  What steps can we take to reverse this trend? Are there policies that can be enacted to ensure that multi family homes are not converted into single family homes?  I'm sure that somewhere in the world these issues have been addressed.

But mostly, we have to stop pretending that we can go on doing things the way that they have always been done.  We have a very liberal land use bylaw for Home Based Businesses, but can it be improved to make it even better for people wanting to move here to set up home businesses?  Mahone Bay just made it possible to use carriage houses as tourist homes.  Why not Lunenburg? 

Can we go on pretending that as our population declines that our property taxes and utility bills won't seriously increase?  Are we pricing out young families and people that have been here for years?  Is it responsible to think that Lunenburg county residents should be paying for 5 municipal units and a duplication of services?  The whole county has a total population of 47,000 people and that number is going down.

Change will come whether we want it or not.  The yellow line tells the story.  But at this point we can make the change ourselves.  We can guide it responsibly.  In 20 years that will not be the case. But before you can fix a problem, you have to admit you have one.
You can find the full report from SSHAC by clicking on the April 28th minutes.  It's really informative.