TRURO - Good communication with small business owners and maintaining a "fair" commercial tax rate are two primary ways for municipalities to improve satisfaction rates.
That is the assessment of Leanne Hachey, Atlantic Canada vice-president for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), following a national report that placed Truro near the bottom of a ratings scale based on being friendly to small business.
"I would say the most important and critical thing that a council will do is just be aware of its small business community," Hachey said.
That can be done by developing an ongoing process for communicating with small-business owners on a regular basis or even appointing an ombudsman for the role.
"Again, finding some way that you keep that connection with the small business community," she said. "Because what we hear from our members in Truro, in Nova Scotia, across the country, that many don't believe their council is aware of their issues. And we all know that if you want to fix a problem, you have to know what the problem is first."
One major complaint from CFIB members across the province, she said, is the rate of commercial tax they pay in relation to residential property taxes.
"It is critical," Hachey said, of developing a "fair" tax rate. "It's not the only factor but it's one of the key ones."
The report deals with comparisons between 100 Canadian municipalities with population sizes of at least 25,000 (Colchester County was included in the Truro numbers) on 14 different indicators, including red tape and commercial tax rates.
Truro's residential rate currently stands at $1.76 per $100 of assessment. The commercial rate, however, is $4.44 per $100 of assessment.
In Colchester County, the residential rate is 84 cents per $100 of assessment while the commercial rate is at $2.25 per $100 of assessment.
"And in our mind, paying two, three or four times more is not paying their fair share," Hachey said.
Reducing commercial rates, however, is not as simple as picking numbers out of the air, Truro Mayor Bill Mills suggests.
"My issue is, a lot of the projects that the town deals in, like for example when they talk about expenses and red tape and all that good stuff ... a lot of what we do, civic centres and hospitals and other things are driven in a lot of ways by business."
And when developers or individuals hoping to set up business complain about bureaucratic red tape, Mills said, it sometimes means they simply did not get their way.
"Sometimes I think red tape is a red herring. And what I mean by that, is, it's red tape when we tell you, 'you can't have that.'"
Building on flood plains is a prime example, he said.
"Everybody knows that we live on a flood plain and yet people continue to build there. The word 'no' is not very popular with a lot of people."
As far as developing an ombudsman position, however, Mills said that is part of the role that councillors now play.
And he said many efforts have been made in recent years to address such concerns with the town's planning department.
But that does not mean more cannot be done to improve things, according to Kelti Jones, who is running against Mills for the mayor's positions.
While Truro received positive ratings for such things as presence, perspective and satisfiction from a residential standpoint in the CFIB report, "the score on policy actually went down," Jones said.
"And policy is based on the perception of the members about local government and whether local government is sympathetic to small business. So when I'm looking at those score breakdowns, only one per cent of the members think that government awareness of small business is good and 90 per cent think that regulations and the paper burden are a significant concern for them."
Like Hachey, Jones believes council would be wise to set up a proper communications channel with the small business community while also taking a look at some of the town's policies and regulations that present the most challenges to see where changes can be made.
At the very least, she said, town council should not ignore the findings of the CFIB report.
"I think that there's a lot to be learned from this," she said.