Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Hat Junkie's Guide For Making Nova Scotia Small Business Friendly.

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.  
 2-Accessibility grants.
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.
3-Think Local.
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.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Thank you, Minister Casey

Dear Minister Casey,

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your decision to close Nova Scotia schools on Monday. 

I know you are only too aware that the teachers voted to implement work to rule measures.  This would mean only working to contract.  All the extra work that teachers do on a day to day basis would be put on hold until an agreement was reached between the government and the teachers' union.

As a parent of a child in the seventh grade, I am past the point of needing to be concerned for my son's safety if,  by chance, the school bus were to arrive before the principal or teacher.  But this scenario could indeed be dangerous for a younger child and I am grateful that you had the foresight to realize that if the principals arrived only twenty minutes before the start of the school day and left twenty minutes after the end of the day, as is written in their contract, that we could be putting the safety of our children in jeopardy.

I have to confess, though, that I was shocked to learn that the government  has felt comfortable leaving the safety of our children up to the kindness of teachers and principals. In all these years, it never once occurred to me that when the teachers and principals arrived earlier than twenty minutes that they were not being paid for their time.  Not that I would have felt any apprehension had I been aware of this fact.

You see, teachers and principals going above and beyond the call of duty is something that most parents understand well.  Whether it be school carnivals, Christmas concerts, band practices, drama clubs, communicating with parents, self funded trips to the dollar store to purchase prizes or after school sports, we all know that teachers are motivated by something much greater than money.  They are motivated by love and devotion.    Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine a teacher sacrificing the safety of a child.  But that's neither here nor there because, as I'm sure you would agree, the safety of a child should never be left to the assumption of a teacher's love and devotion.  Something as basic as the safety of our children should  not be on par with after school soccer. 

So, once again, I thank you.  Your decision to close schools on Monday has highlighted how much we owe our teachers and how much we are failing our children.  I look forward to hearing future news stories of a government that is truly listening to the people who we have entrusted with our children's futures.


Anna Shoub,