Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell says that if the provincial government is serious about tackling poverty in Nova Scotia, it needs to start doing a better job working with municipalities as partners.
“We can’t solve these problems — we can’t have lasting solutions — if we aren’t all communicating with each other,” he told MLAs during a meeting in Halifax on Tuesday.
Mitchell expressed his frustration at the end of the legislature’s standing committee on community services where he was the only municipal leader invited as part of a witness list to discuss the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on people’s ability to afford energy for their homes.
He was not asked a single question by any of the MLAs on the committee during the 90-minute meeting.
“We are the ones on the ground every single day,” Mitchell told the committee.
“I have to pass people living under bridges to get to my office. I have to pass a soup kitchen to get to my office and these are the people that I engage with. And so I am as much a part of the solution as you are, and more and more I feel like we’re being excluded.”
Mitchell’s town is one of four communities slated to receive new government-owned affordable housing after an announcement last week by Housing Minister John Lohr.
While he welcomes the news, Mitchell said he didn’t find out about the announcement until Lohr made it, doesn’t know how many units the town will receive and so cannot be sure if the necessary municipal infrastructure is in place to accommodate the new development.
“Affordable housing is what we need, but when that affordable housing announcement comes as a shock, our first reaction is we don’t even know if we can approve this,” he told reporters following the meeting.
Mitchell told reporters that about 40 per cent of the people in his community live in energy poverty, meaning more than six per cent of their after-tax income goes to pay energy bills. That does not include food insecurity or any other cost-of-living challenges people might be facing, he said.
“It’s a number that’s probably outdated at this point.”
Considering a low-income power rate
The town has helped retrofit more than 100 homes and 46 apartment units to make them more energy efficient, but Mitchell said those efforts are often offset by other financial challenges people face.
The provincial government recently struck a low-income advisory group, including representatives from several government departments, Nova Scotia Power, the Affordable Energy Coalition and Efficiency Nova Scotia, to discuss options that could help address energy poverty.
One option some advocates have advanced for years is a designated low-income power rate. Although such programs in the United States are often funded by other utility customers, a similar program in Ontario is funded by taxpayers. After documenting their income and energy needs, qualifying customers are assigned a credit that prevents their bill from exceeding six per cent of their income.
Chris Lanteigne, director of customer care for Nova Scotia Power, said his understanding of the Ontario program is that it’s produced positive outcomes.
“I do know anecdotally from talking to other utilities that are in Ontario, they report to us that they have a lower percentage of customers who are experiencing arrears balances because the on-bill credit is able to help those customers before they actually get into trouble,” he told reporters following the meeting.
Nova Scotia Power cannot pursue an alternative rate for some customers without legislation being passed by the provincial government. Lanteigne said the utility is discussing the idea with the government as part of the low-income advisory group.
“We feel it is worth looking at,” he said.
Lanteigne said the power company has had to disconnect 2,825 customers this year for not being able to pay their bills, something he said was “a last resort” following ongoing efforts to work with those customers. He said that figure is similar to pre-pandemic years.