Council Update: Budget 2019 Begins, Side Guards and more

Budget 2019: The big discussion on Tuesday was the start of our 2019/2020 budget deliberations. As a result, we had a Committee of the Whole on budget as well as a regular council agenda. Council’s task on the budget was to set the high-level direction for staff. The main question was, what should the 2019/2020 tax rate be?

HRM doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver on this. The municipality’s debt has been steadily declining, and reserves are stable, but costs go up each and every year. Since 80% of HRM’s revenues come from property taxes, it’s hard to avoid raising taxes to offset increasing costs. A major cost driver for HRM is labour. More than half of HRM’s operating budget is salaries and salary costs are increasing significantly. This is particularly true for police and firefighters where arbitrated contracts have locked in increases that are well-above the rate of inflation. Salary costs are projected to rise in 2019/2020 from $388 million to $403 million. Other budget pressures that HRM has little control over come from the cost of fuel and from providing services to a growing population. Fuel will add $3 million to the budget while new and expanded services are expected to cost $8 million. The total gap between new revenues and rising expenses is projected to be $15 million for 2019/2020.

Many people’s immediate reaction at budget season is “don’t raise taxes.” The situation is always more complicated though than that gut reaction. The reality for HRM is that if taxes don’t go up, than the municipality will have to cutback on services or not follow through on projects. There is no mythical gravy train that’s going to make up the $15 million dollar gap in 2019/2020’s budget. Our choices become variations on what rec program won’t we deliver, what streets won’t we pave, can we layoff police officers or other staff, etc. Tax increases are easy to oppose in the abstract, but it’s way harder when the trade-offs are more starkly apparent. Council will actually be digging into some of the trade-offs on the capital side in tomorrow’s Committee of the Whole since the capital budget for the next three years is balanced, but doesn’t include a lot of major items. What Council directed staff to do was prepare three budget scenarios based on a tax increase of 1.9%, 2.1% and 2.9%. Basically we’ve set a range and we’ll have the chance to see the trade-offs of each scenario when budget deliberations begin in earnest in the New Year.

HRM corrects rates to account for assessment increases

A few notes about taxes. As the chart above shows, when HRM talks about tax increase, that increase is the percentage change for the out-of-pocket cost for the average homeowner. HRM corrects for assessment gains, which means that there are times when the out-of-pocket cost increases, but the actual tax rate goes down. Gone are the old days when HRM would boasts about not raising the tax rate, while allowing assessment increases to fill the coffers. We’re the only level of government that does that. Federal and Provincial income taxes certainly don’t come down to reflect rising wages! When HRM talks about a tax increase, it’s pegged at what it would mean out of pocket for the average homeowner. We don’t pocket the assessment lift.

Second, you can’t compare tax rates across the country without taking into account the vast difference in property values. The challenge for municipalities with lower property values is that the cost of services don’t vary nearly as much. For example, buying a bus for Halifax Transit costs us about the same as it does the TTC in Toronto, but Toronto’s property values are way higher. Toronto can generate the money to pay for that bus with a lower tax rate whereas Halifax needs a higher rate because our property values are lower. In either case, the cash needed is the same and the source is the same, it’s just a difference on paper of how you get there. As a result, a superficial comparison of rates from across the country puts Halifax near the bottom, but if look at what it actually costs to operate HRM out-of-pocket for the average resident, we rank pretty well. HRM has also held the line on taxes fairly well over the last five years, with an average increase well below most comparable cities in the country.

 

Average Property Tax Increase (5 year average)

 

Boston Garbage Truck with Side Guards

Side Guards and Garbage Trucks: I was very pleased to see staff return with a positive recommendation for installing side guards on all contracted garbage trucks. HRM’s current garbage contract for curbside pickup expires in 2021, while our contract for condominium pickup expires in 2019. The staff recommendation was to renew the condominium service for two additional years, as allowed in the original contract, and spend $238,229 to install side guards on all 91 privately-owned trucks that collect trash in HRM.

The need for side guards to me is quite clear. We’ve had a number of accidents involving trucks and pedestrians and cyclists in HRM over the last several years. I know of two that involved garbage trucks. Corey Mock was killed by a garbage truck on Gottingen Street in 2001. It’s his white ghost bike that sits on the triangle of land on the approach to the Macdonald Bridge on the Halifax side. In 2014, 83 year-old Elizabeth Foston was running to get her garbage out from her home on Breton Street in Dartmouth when she slipped and fell. She survived the collusion, but lost both her legs. Other collisions involving trucks include Johanna Dean in 2014 and Jaclyn Hennessey in 2008. Evidence from the UK strongly suggests that side guards on trucks save lives and reduce the severity of injuries. Side guards are mandatory in Europe, but Canada and the US haven’t followed suit, largely due to resistance from our trucking industries.

While HRM can’t make side guards mandatory for all trucks on our roads, we can make them a requirement for municipal contracts. This is especially important to do for vehicles like garbage trucks that spend a lot of time on residential streets where the odds of encountering vulnerable road users is much higher. There was some discussion about HRM paying the cost for providing side guards now versus waiting until the contracts expire. The existing contracts didn’t include side guards as a requirement so their installation is something that HRM has to pay for. Luckily it really doesn’t matter because we’re going to pay for them no matter what. If we wait three years until the municipality goes out to test the market, the private sector providers will simply build in the cost of side guards into their bids. One way or the other, HRM will pay the cost. Given that it falls to the municipality either way, it makes sense to me to pay now and get side guards onto our garbage trucks as soon as possible. We may save a life or protect someone from severe injury. Council voted 16-1 in favour of extending the condominium contract and paying for side guards (Councillor Streatch dissenting)

Industrial and residential uses in close proxmity in Woodside

Woodside Industrial Park Zoning: A report from staff in reply to my motion to revise planning rules in the Woodside Industrial Park to minimize conflicts between residential and industrial uses was back at Council. This request came out of a rezoning application for the Innovacorp lands adjacent to Dartmouth South Academy last year. My concern is that industrial uses aren’t properly screened under the current regulations when they’re in close proximity to residential and community uses. A tour of the Woodside Industrial Park reveals a real mix of industrial facilities, including some that are fine neighbours as well as ones that aren’t a good fit for someone’s backyard. The lack of controls over outdoor storage seem to be particularly problematic in my observation. Industrial lands aren’t going to be perfectly neat and tidy, but there should be some consideration when they’re bordering homes and schools. I had hoped to amend the rules sooner rather than later, but the staff recommendation is to handle this as part of Package B in the Centre Plan. That means that the rezoning of the lands by Dartmouth South Academy and new rules concerning mitigating conflicts with industrial uses will likely come forward sometime in 2020. Council approved the recommendation to consider this as part of the Centre Plan.

Silver’s Hill Park: On Tuesday’s agenda was a rather minor name correction, but one with a strong tie into Dartmouth history: Silver Hill Park is now officially Silver’s Hill Park. Silver’s Hill is named after Hugh Silver. Silver was a wealthy merchant who made his fortune in the import/export trade and served on the board of a number of prominent Halifax companies. Silver purchased 20 acres in Dartmouth at the turn of the century and constructed a large mansion near the centre of his estate in 1913. The mansion is still there at the corner of Camden Street and Wyndholme Avenue, although it was carved up into apartments in the 1950s. Silver’s prominence in the community and the 36 years that he spent living on the hilltop is what gave Silver’s Hill its name.

Since Silver’s Hill Park gets its name from Hugh Silver, a possessive comma s is correct. It was his hill. Unfortunately, at some point, the official administrative name for HRM’s Park lost the s and it was officially recorded as simply Silver Hill Park. The error came to light when HRM installed a new park sign and the signage reflected the incorrect s-less administrative name. Folks in the know were quick to point out the missing s and the error has now been officially corrected by Council. An updated park sign will be installed next year.¬†Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. Well, the view from Silver’s Hill is stunning with or without a comma and a s, but a comma and a s is correct!

Purcells Cove Route 15. Photo: Local Traveller

Route 15 Purcells Cove: Probably the most controversial item on Council’s agenda was changes to Transit’s route 15. The 15 currently provides once an hour service through Purcells Cove to York Redoubt, but the bus isn’t well-used. Total weekday ridership is 200 people a day, but after William’s Lake Road, where the population density drops, it only picks up 36 people. There are very few people using the bus out to York Redoubt, and most of them are boarding during rush hour. HRM’s intent with the Moving Forward Together Plan is to focus service in areas where there is strong ridership. There is no realistic prospect of ever achieving significant ridership beyond Williams Lake because the population density is just too low. Removing service is never easy, but transit can’t be everything to everyone. The municipality can’t put buses on every street. Some hard choices have to be made.¬†Council narrowly voted 9-7 to stick with the Moving Forward Plan recommendation to remove all-day service out to York Redoubt¬†(Adams, Zurawski, Whitman, Hendsbee, Blackburn, Craig, Outhit voted against the changes).

It’s important to note that it’s not all bad for Purcells Cove. Service out to York Redoubt won’t disappear entirely. The new route 415 will provide peak service, which is when most of the 36 people who use the 15 now board. In the more developed portion of the community by Williams Lake, service will actually be enhanced. The new route 25 will replace the 15 and will provide 30 minute service during rush hour, and hourly service in off peak hours up till 11:00 pm. Saturday and Sunday will have similar hours. This is an extra three hours of service every evening and the 30 minute frequency during peak hours also doesn’t currently exist.

Other:

  • Approved the registration of the Dennis Building at the corner of George and Granville in Downtown Halifax as a registered heritage building
  • Amended the Halifax Mainland Plan to allow a 7 storey mixed-use building on the site of a former gas station in Spryfield
  • Finalized new bylaws for paving charges
  • Directed staff to look at making Arts Halifax a truly independent committee as part of the Cultural Priorities Plan
  • Asked for a staff report into formalizing changes to the Real Property Administrative Orders to prevent a Bowles arena situation from happening again
  • Requested a staff report on expanding the Street Navigator Program to Sackville