Agenda, February 14 (Public Works)
Agenda, February 10 (Library)
Agenda, February 8 (HalifACT)
Agenda, February 3 (Police)
Agenda, January 27 (CAO’s Office)
Budget time is always the busiest time of year at City Hall. To build the budget, Council reviews each department, which pretty much triples the amount of time we spend in the Council chamber (it’s the time of year where I struggle the most to keep up with my blog!). Each department comes before Council with their workplan and ideas on where cuts could potentially be made or areas where HRM could put in additional effort. Council inevitably comes up with some ideas of its own too. It’s a very detailed and involved process.
As the budget process moves along, all the ideas for cuts or service improvements that Council agrees to consider get gathered up into one master list called the budget adjustment list (BAL). The last step of the budget process is for Council to go through the BAL to determine what’s in and what’s out. The reason why we build a list before making a final decision is so that we know what the full implications are of approving a particular measure and can think about where that item sits in terms of competing priorities. Right now, we’re just over halfway through our department presentations (Parks and Rec, Transit, and Fire being the big three that are still left), so I thought I would take a moment to share some of the highlights.
The normally quiet CAO’s Office generated a lot of discussion this year because it includes HRM’s Public Safety Office. There has been a lot of talk about defunding, detasking, reforming, reimagining (pick your title) policing and the upcoming Public Safety Strategy, which is being led by the Public Safety Office, will contain elements of that work.
I wholeheartedly support detasking. There are things that police do now because there is simply no one else to do the job. Police are tasked with addressing many of society’s problems, regardless of whether an issue is best dealt with by them or not. It doesn’t have to be this way. The best example of change that has already happened is paramedics. Paramedics didn’t exist as a profession until the 1970s. Before paramedics, when someone needed to be transported to hospital, the police or the local funeral parlour is who answered the call. Paramedics were such an obviously better way to deal with medical emergencies that now it’s hard to remember a time without them. Policing isn’t going to disappear, but what role we expect police to play should change, as it has before, to reflect the needs of our changing society.
To implement the new Public Safety Strategy, the Public Safety Office is seeking 15 new positions, four of which will be funded by the federal government through Public Safety Canada. Council had a vigorous debate about adding so many people to the Public Safety Office. I’m open to the idea as you can’t expect transformative change to be done off the side of someone’s desk. It needs dedicated resources. We haven’t seen the Strategy yet though, which made some of my colleagues reluctant to add anything to the adjustment list. In the end, Council voted to add the staffing request, but with the understanding that the Strategy will come before Council in the next few weeks: Council wants to know the Strategy’s specifics before we commit to staffing.
Still on the topic of public safety, Council took a look at the police budget, but deferred a decision because of the potential to remove some items from the police budget and to add additional staff.
Like every HRM department, the police budget grows each year to reflect rising costs (mainly salaries). In a unionized environment, particularly for police where salaries are set by binding arbitration, HRM has little control over rising wages. Over the last three years, my stance on the police budget has been consistent: I have supported increases to the budget that covers rising costs, but have opposed adding new officers. I can’t support cutting policing when we don’t have a plan for how things might change, but I also can’t support expanding service when we don’t know where we’re going. For me, the appropriate response is to hold the department as is.
This year, HRP requested three officers and the RCMP four. Council didn’t act on HRP’s request, but did move the RCMP’s request to the adjustment list for further consideration. The RCMP’s request hinged on two points: (1) on a cop per resident basis, their staffing in HRM is below the national average, and (2) there has been an 11% increase in the population in RCMP patrolled areas since they last added officers. I didn’t find the RCMP’s case compelling because there was no breakdown of the cop per pop statistics to see what we were being compared to, and there was no data presented on response times to demonstrate whether the population increase is actually straining resources. The vote to add the RCMP officers to the list passed 13-3 with myself, Morse and Cleary voting no.
While Council didn’t act on HRP’s request for additional officers, we did agree to consider two additional civilian employees: an occupational health nurse and a psychologist. Halifax Police, like police forces across the country, has seen an uptick in the number of officers out on long-term leave. Greater recognition of the importance of mental health has played a significant role in that increase, but it’s not the only factor. While I didn’t support adding officers, I did vote in favour of this request to better support existing officers and help others who are out on leave return to the workforce. Council approved adding the two positions to the BAL, but also wanted to know if they could be more broadly focussed to help other departments that have employees who also deal with traumatic situations, like the Fire Department.
Council also made three requests on potentially transferring services out of the police department. The potential transfers include crossing guards, victim services, and the lake patrol. Crossing guards and the lake patrol really don’t have much to do with policing and could be administered by other departments. Victim services is a bit more complicated and Council will get a detailed briefing on that before making any decision.
The normally quiet Fleet, and Property presentation was also more complicated this year because Fleet and Property has become Fleet, Property and Environment, which means the department now has primary responsibility for HalifACT, HRM’s climate change plan.
Climate change is the crisis of our times. Our civilization has hit the snooze button too many times and the world’s scientists are now telling us we’re rapidly running out of time to avoid the worst impacts. The warnings are getting more and more urgent and dire. That climate change is impacting Nova Scotia is readily apparent given our current nearly winterless winter. It’s true that we’re not going to solve climate change in HRM, but the problem is everyone on this planet in every city, province, state, and country can reach the same conclusion and, if we all do nothing, we’re in for a world of hurt. All we can do is do our part and hope the rest of the world does likewise. That’s not a great spot to be in, but since we don’t have any global government to bind everyone, it’s all we’ve got.
HRM has committed to reduce the municipality’s emissions to zero by 2030 and to try and drive change in the community. HalifACT sets a path to be carbon neutral by 2050, but that distance deadline shouldn’t provide any comfort. If HRM is to meet its share of the Paris commitments, we have to substantially decrease emissions over the next few years. Our carbon budget, under business as usual will be expended by 2027. It’s not a distant deadline, it’s a very much a now problem.
This is an issue that I have championed. I very much committed to doing our part on climate change in the 2020 election campaign, I modified the original staff recommendation for HalifACT to require a resourcing plan, pushed to hire people to actually do the work, and supported the Climate Change Tax to provide funding to actually start implementing projects. Unfortunately, this year HalifACT seems to be once again facing resourcing issues.
Under the 2022 resourcing plan, a need for 25 more people to work on HalifACT initiatives over three years was identified. The plan is to stagger those hires because there are just practical limits of how many new people can be onboarded into our previously small Environment group at a time. Council approved hiring six people last year and the intent was that eight additional hires would be made this year. Unfortunately, staff did not include these eight positions in the draft budget and, it seems, they weren’t planning to tell Council that they weren’t included either. This lack of resourcing wasn’t identified in any materials and only came to light through me asking about a separate HalifACT item.
I was quite annoyed about this given all the discussion Council has had about HalifACT and the push that we’ve made to make sure the plan is prioritized and resourced. To omit this information, just a year after we accepted the three year resource plan, and leave it to Council’s questioning to potentially bring the facts to light wasn’t appropriate and, to me, is close to a lie by omission. Senior leadership missed the mark on this one. So I moved a motion to include the six HalifACT positions to the adjustment list. Council wasn’t entirely on board with adding to the adjustment list without more information so my request got modified into a briefing note on HalifACT staffing instead. Staff will return in March with more information. I’m expecting that what will come of that is we will need to add several positions this year in this critical area.
The main issue in the Library’s presentation for Council to consider is the state of the collection. People in HRM love the Library and it shows. Library usage in HRM exceeds the national average, but that is, unfortunately, not paired with the resources to match. While usage in HRM is high, the size of HRM’s collection is below the national average. We have 1.8 holdings (books, e-books, videos, music, etc) per person compared to the national average of 2.1. This means that folks in HRM have less selection than other libraries and there are fewer copies of popular titles, leading to much longer wait periods. Council has put some additional funding into the library collection over the last few years (an issue I have championed), but due to inflation and our rapidly growing population, the size of the collection has actually started to shrink again relative to HRM’s population.
Council opted to add $300,000 in additional funding for the collection to the adjustment list. The $300,000 won’t move the needle on the collection’s size relative to the population, it will offset the impact of inflation and growth and hold HRM steady this year. To try and get a more systematic plan to right-size the collection, Councillor Mancini is bringing a motion to Council to develop a plan to address the issue over the next several years. The total funding required to bring the collection up to the national average is around $4,500,000, so a multi-year strategy makes a lot of sense.
Finally, Council has completed its review of the Public Works budget. The only extra from Public Works that Council voted to add to the budget list was performance based towing. A performance towing contract would better guarantee timely service so that HRM can be more effective in removing illegally parked vehicles and vehicles that are blocking snow plows. Under the existing standing offer system, the wait for a tow truck can be significant and during busy times, they sometimes don’t show at all. It’s an area that we need to be more effective as not having reliable access to a tow truck ties up other municipal resources.
Most of the debate on the Public Works budget was focussed on potential cuts. Options such as requiring property owners to clear sidewalks, collecting green bins in the summer biweekly instead of weekly, scrapping the low-income senior snow clearing program, ending bulky waste pick-up at the curb, and scaling back special waste mobile pick-ups were all either defeated or not moved at all. Council added no service cuts to Public Works to the adjustment list.
While Council has proven very reluctant to make cuts, the same isn’t proving true for increasing user fees. Council approved adding to the list an increase in the cost for commercial operators to dispose of organics at the compost facility by $10 a tonne, increasing parking rates, and decreasing the hours in which parking is free.
The potential changes to street parking rates and times is likely to attract the most attention since it’s something that affects people in their day-to-day lives. Council is considering making street parking paid on Saturdays and extending the evening cutoff for paid parking from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Saturday parking isn’t something that HRM has charged for before, but we’re almost alone in that. Most big Canadian cities charge for parking on Saturdays including: Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec City. The only comparable Canadian cities that, like us, don’t have paid parking on Saturday are Winnipeg, Regina, and London. Our small city Atlantic neighbours like Moncton, Charlottetown and St. John’s also don’t charge on Saturdays. The vote to add Saturday parking to the adjustment list was almost unanimous, 15-1 with Councillor Outhit voting no.
Adding evening parking to the list for consideration was a bit more controversial, passing 11 – 5, with myself, Outhit, Mancini, Savage, and Russell voting no. I voted against evening parking because Downtown Dartmouth has a thriving restaurant and bar scene and my concern is that adding evening parking while businesses are still recovering from the difficult COVID years could have negative impacts. Plus, we really don’t have the same sort of issues in Downtown Dartmouth that Downtown Halifax does. Councillor Mason spoke about streetside spaces in Downtown Halifax being occupied by employees at the many Downtown businesses, taking away spaces from patrons. Downtown Dartmouth has some of that challenge too, but not to the same degree, so the case for adding evening hours just isn’t as strong. Downtown Dartmouth is stuck in the middle between high-demand Downtown Halifax and free parking suburbia and sometimes that in between position requires a different approach. This will come back for further debate and I have requested that staff have an option ready to not add evening parking to Downtown Dartmouth, even if it proceeds in Downtown Halifax.
The last potential user fee increase related to parking that was added to the adjustment list is upping the actual rate. Parking is charged based on demand, meaning that it’s most expensive in the middle of the day and cheaper in the morning and late afternoon. In Dartmouth (zone H), the new rates would increase the cost of parking over the lunchtime to $3.25 an hour from the current $2.50.
The vote to add the increased rates to the adjustment list passed unanimously.