Taxes in the Municipality of Pictou County will stay the same this year.
Councillors voted Monday night to approved an $18 million operating budget for this fiscal year beginning April 2019 and ending March 31, 2020. The tax rate remains at .81 cents for every $100 of assessed value for residential properties and $1.82 per $100 assessed value for commercial properties.
The County expects its tax revenue to increase by 3.8 per cent in this fiscal year and its overall budget has increased by 4.1 percent in both its revenue and expenditures.
Council also approved a $28-million capital budget that includes an investment in a major telecommunications project for $8.2 million this fiscal year that will see high speed internet delivered to homes and businesses in rural Pictou County. A borrowing agreement of $24 million was approved by Council for upfront costs of the total project, but council is hoping that provincial and federal funding will be approved to offset the project’s costs in the future.
Now that funding has been secured, council is negotiating on a contract with a broadband consortium led by Nova Communications. CAO Brian Cullen said that by September the group should have a detailed engineering of the work needed complete and once approved, work will begin on the project. The goal he said is to have 600 homes receiving the internet service by the end of 2019 and a majority of the county within two years.
Cullen said the Municipality of Pictou County wouldn’t actually provide the service directly to customers but would allow other internet service providers to use their infrastructure for a fee.
“This is a major initiative by this Council. It has been worked on for two and half years and I fully accept we have to be very good at doing our due diligence,” said County Warden Robert Parker. “We investigated what happened in other municipalities and learned lessons from what happened in other areas and will go forward. I have great confidence this will succeed.”
He said the issue was one of the main topics brought up by residents during the last election period.
Parker said the Municipality of Pictou County has to make sure it gets share of provincial and federal funding for this project. He added that people are also concerned about the lack of cell service in rural areas, but Council has been assured when the high speed internet is in place, cell service will follow.
“If we are going to keep our rural areas from emptying out, we have to have good high-speed internet and cell service or people won’t buy homes in rural areas,” he said. “We are hoping to have a majority of the county covered in two years and we believe our projections will make it sustainable.
The Municipality of Pictou County also approved emergency funding for five rural fire departments that are struggling to meet their operational needs and have a limited taxable assessment for fire protection.
The county’s Fire Liaison Committee said the funding formula for fire departments needs to be reviewed, but as a short-term solution it recommended temporary funding be approved by Council for this fiscal year. Council budgeted $150,000 to be shared equally among Barney’s River, Pictou Landing, Blue Mountain, East River St. Mary’s and East River Valley fire departments.
Parker said this funding was a “one-year patch” for fire departments and not a long-term solution.
“We need to use this year to come up with a fairer way of funding for everyone, so our money gets properly spread around,” he said. “My bottom line is everyone deserves good fire protection and we need to make sure our volunteer fire fighters are safe when they go to a fire. We also have to be assured by doing this study, we can answer some questions.”
Parker said when the review takes place it will be important for all the rural departments to be involved in the discussion.
Council also approved $407,000 in funding for grants that will support community projects such as renovations to halls, recreation programs and community events. This is in addition to $49,798 approved for municipal service grants that will assist community organizations with purchases, maintenance projects and programs.