A week ago today, the federal and provincial governments announced they were teaming up to spend $83 million toward the construction of 222 public housing units.
It’s the first provincial money spent on public housing in 30 years. The majority of those units will be built in the community of Sackville, which is in HRM.
But the joint announcement also indicated public housing units would be built in Sydney, Bridgewater, Kentville and Truro.
On Tuesday at a meeting of the Legislative Committee on Community Services the mayor of Bridgewater expressed his frustration with how municipalities are rarely consulted by federal and provincial governments before making decisions that directly affect people in their communities.
Mayor David Mitchell said he was “shocked” last week to hear the announcement that included an unspecified number of apartments for a particular area of Bridgewater.
Mayor concerned about infrastructure capacity
That’s because, for some time, the fast-growing municipality of Bridgewater has been knocking on provincial and federal doors begging for funding to upgrade the aging pipes and inadequate wastewater system in the town.
Mitchell said it’s an urgent problem (there’s a 2039 federal deadline) with a $55-million price tag for a town with a $6-million capital budget.
“Our pipes are literally not big enough,” Mitchell said.
“The wastewater system was built during the 1960s and now when we get heavy rain, it overflows and runs into the LaHave River. That’s clearly unacceptable and you wouldn’t build something to that standard today. So this is a great announcement — affordable housing is what we need — but when affordable housing comes as a shock, our first reaction is we don’t know if we can approve this. What if the location — we know where it is — can’t handle it? Now what do we do? That conversation isn’t taking place and that means we can’t solve these issues because we aren’t communicating.”
The mayor was also irked at having rescheduled an appointment and driven 90 minutes to the city for a meeting of a legislative committee to discuss energy poverty and being given only three minutes to speak.
For him it was just another example of the disrespect with which politicians at other levels of government treat their municipal counterparts — although other presenters said they too had been told they would have five minutes to make presentations before being abruptly shortened to three minutes by committee chair Melissa Sheehy-Richard, the PC MLA for Hants West.
Mitchell, who has been mayor for 14 years, said municipal governments deliver the services that are closest to citizens and yet are rarely consulted by other levels of government with respect to infrastructure projects and other changes.
“We have a department of housing, a department of energy, a department of community services, a department of health. They are siloed,” Mitchell said.
“When you get to municipal politics, we don’t have that. I sit in one council meeting with people who represent everyone and we just deal with the problem at hand. So it can be frustrating for us because we are the one without the silos.”
More ‘targeted supports’ from PCs
Tuesday’s committee topic was how the cost of living is impacting energy bills. There was no witness from the provincial Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, which is responsible for energy programs.
Joy Knight, executive director with the Department of Community Services, noted the province has put $1 million this year into a “diversion fund” that can be used to help income assistance recipients who are in danger of having their oil or electricity cut off because they are behind in their bills.
There are also free energy audits and heat pumps available for people who have online access to programs run by Efficiency One.
What does not appear to be on the table is any increase to income assistance rates. Nova Scotia’s are now the lowest in the country, according to a recent national report card on poverty.
Premier Tim Houston’s government has resisted repeated calls from opposition MLAs to increase income assistance rates, arguing that targeted supports such as increases to the Child Benefit and Heating Assistance Rebate Program are more effective.