Mediocre municipalities hold themselves back.
by Don Cayo


A great many cities, towns and villages in this region believe in themselves. Conventional wisdom has it that new businesses, both large and small, would surely come flocking in if only local folks could find a way to get the word out – to tell others what a wonderful place we live in.

Maybe. I’d be the last to deny the many charms of Atlantic Canada, not to mention that land and labor are cheaper than in many other parts of the country.

But it seems to me that community marketing efforts will be, if not doomed, then at least diminished, until local powers-that-be focus on having something better to sell. And I’m not talking about snazzy industrial parks or other perks built with multi-zillion-dollar infrastructure grants. A key thing that needs fixing in pretty well every Atlantic community is a lot more basic, a lot cheaper to tackle. And the tools to fix it are at hand, not in distant Ottawa.

What’s broken is local government.

Sure, I know about those glossy magazines that laud this city or that town in one of their ubiquitous “best of” lists. That’s nice – something for marketers to cite in their equally glossy brochures.

But the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has a much more significant – and damning – view of things that matter. It’s a survey of local business owners – people who know far more than visiting writers. And people who create far more jobs than big companies from away.

The Federation asked 1,652 Atlantic members about five nitty-gritty areas of local governance:

– the level and distribution of property taxes;

– value for money of local spending;

– control of public sector wage levels;

– fairness of bylaws and regulations;

– overall awareness of small business issues.

These things are not the stuff of some conspiratorial “business agenda” that some people assume motivates every action of groups like the Federation or people like me. These things also matter to John and Jane Lunchbox. Even over-generous wages, which sound nice at first blush, not only make it hard for businesses to find good workers, they also drive taxes and create two classes of citizens – “haves” who work for government and “have-nots” who don’t.

The results of the survey are appalling. All cities and most towns flunked big time. Smaller Prince Edward Island communities [everywhere but Charlottetown, which had 3.50] topped the list with the only bare pass – 5.08 or 51 per cent. Moncton and a clutch of unnamed smaller places in Nova Scotia were a dismal second with 4.69. The kindest thing to say about these “leaders” is that they’re the best of a bad lot.

Halifax, which is enjoying what passes in this region for boom times, is doing so in spite of rather than because of its newly bloated local government. Its rating was down in the mud with 2.73. The kindest thing to say is that at least it’s better than Sydney at 2.05.

Other places – Saint John, for example, with 3.74, Yarmouth with 3.89 or St. John’s with 2.79 – are in the lack-lustre middle. The kindest thing to say is . . . well, perhaps it’s to say nothing at all.

The Federation rightly points out that municipal policies aren’t the be-all and end-all of job creation. Provincial and federal governments can be and often are far more influential.

But it is also right to point out that municipalities have the most direct influence on small- and medium-sized enterprises.

So, while CEOs planning a high-profile call centre may peruse glossy magazines to assess where to put it, the little guys – the ones who ultimately create the most jobs – mull over their own knowledge or talk to each other.

Most small business people ultimately build close to home – a fact that helps keep badly run municipalities in the game. Yet I wonder what might happen if some places clean up their act – start earning scores of eight or nine or even 10 from the people who know them best. Could they, would they, blow the competition out of the water?

There’s a real opportunity here for a well run community to out-compete its neighbors who remain mired in inefficiency.

A council that wants to turn things around need not even send a delegation to Ottawa or the provincial capital to plead for this concession or that new project. A local government can do a lot itself in three easy steps. First, control taxes. Then spend more wisely. Finally, retain regulations that preserve important community objectives, but make sure they’re efficient – that they do the job without bureaucratic bumph.

In other words, all a council need do is the job it was elected to do. Is there one anywhere out there prepared to forswear bickering and politicking, to set aside the picayune preoccupations that mire so many, and just do it?