It’s that time of year again, budget season at City Hall. Budget time is always the most challenging part of Council’s schedule. It doubles the workload and it’s not easy. The budget is where the push and pull of competing goals and priorities is acutely felt.
In preparing the budget, Council’s starting point is always what the impact on the tax bill will be (tax bill is the combination of assessment changes and the tax rate). Setting a starting point for the bill allows staff to prepare a draft budget for Council to then review, revise, and change. I can’t recall ever seeing the starting tax bill number end up as the final number. It’s very much a starting point. The proposed tax bill for this year is an increase for homes and businesses of 1.9%. Once the increased revenue from the change in assessments is factored in, this would mean a reduction in the actual commercial tax rate and a small rise in the residential rate.
Council had a vigorous discussion as to whether or not 1.9% is reasonable given the economic damage from COVID. Councillor Cleary suggested shifting some of the burden for this year off the commercial sector since many small businesses are suffering. A few other councillors have suggested holding the line on the residential bill too. Neither of those suggestions are ones that I’m very keen on.
HRM faces rising costs each and every year and the services that the municipality provides are close to people’s lives. To just maintain what we already do means the municipality has to take in more money each year due to inflation and salary increases. There are no easy cuts to be had in the municipal budget, just lots of tough choices. If you’re unwilling to cut, then all that’s left is taking on debt, spending savings, or taking in more money. Municipal budgeting is complicated, but at its core it’s that simple: taxes, cuts, savings, or debt.
In terms of the cost to residents, HRM is one of the cheaper municipalities in Canada to run. Our taxes are competitive.
Nevertheless, this year there is more pressure than usual to keep the tax bill low because we know that people in the community are feeling the economic impacts of COVID. Our challenge is that COVID’s impacts have been disproportionate. Some businesses have had banner years, some have been unaffected, and others have been devastated. I would support tax relief to specific sectors, such as restaurants, that have borne the brunt of the economic impact, but HRM doesn’t have the power to do that.
In the early days of COVID, the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities spent a lot of time trying to work out a property tax program with the Province. The end result of those discussions was the Province opted to handle COVID economic relief themselves. That’s where the Province’s hotel property tax relief program came from. Restaurants probably need something similar, but it’s not HRM that can do that, it’s the Province. That division of responsibilities was a conscious decision made by our government.
What it means is that all HRM can do, is set an overall tax rate, which is then applied to everyone regardless of their individual circumstances. For the municipality to provide relief to those that need it means also taking in less from those who can afford to pay. To help Downtown restaurants, we also have to give Walmart a break. I’m not prepared to cut municipal services and projects (with resulting economic and social impacts) when HRM can’t target that relief to those that need it. We’ll see what 1.9% means in the coming weeks as each department presents to Council.
Funding Major Projects:
The other big budget piece that Council is looking at this year is how to pay for major city building initiatives. HRM has been very conservative when it comes to debt, paying back over $100 million since amalgamation, and that payback has occurred even as the population and tax base have grown considerably. We’re in less debt today than ever and our ability to pay the cost of debt has never been better.
The downside to HRM’s debt policy is that the municipality has mainly had a “pay as you go” approach to larger projects. That saves money on interest, but it also means that there hasn’t been the cash available to keep up with regular renewal of existing facilities. It also means that HRM hasn’t been able to fully commit to many planned larger-scale transformational moves. Some of the noteworthy large scale initiatives that Council has endorsed, but that we have been struggling to properly fund include the Integrated Mobility Plan, the Rapid Transit Plan, and HalifACT (our climate change plan). To put it in household terms, HRM has been trying to save up to buy a house in cash rather than taking out a mortgage.
Going forward, what HRM staff are recommending is a more balanced approach to debt. Taking on debt for routine operations would be financially irresponsible (debt should be use for one-time items), but spreading out the cost of large one-time projects through borrowing makes sense given extremely low interest rates. Paying for new facilities over their lifetime also makes sense from a generational point-of-view since it means that each generation contributes through taxes to the cost of major new initiatives and facilities. One important principle that HRM needs to stick to though in revising its debt policy is aligning new debt with a project’s lifecycle. The municipality needs to avoid ending up in a situation of having to spend new money on something that’s at end of life before the original debt is paid back. We need to avoid carrying the cost of both old and new at the same time.
The plan going forward is to create a strategic fund that HRM will contribute to each year. That fund will be available to both pay for projects and the cost of debt (interest and payments on principle) from major projects. As part of the 2021 budget, staff are recommending that HRM start to build the fund by borrowing the first $10,000,000. Details to come on how that money will then be used when the capital budget is presented to Council. Staff will return to Council later this year with revised business cases for HRM’s various reserves and with a new debt policy.
Youth and Transit:
A year ago, HRM launched a pilot project allowing kids 12 and under to ride for free on transit. At our last Council meeting, HRM made that change in fares permanent. The idea of allowing free rides for kids is to develop a culture of transit use. It’s a lot harder to convince someone in their 30s to take transit if riding the bus or ferry isn’t something they’ve done before. Allowing kids to ride free also reduces the cost burden on families and, especially for older children, potentially opens a world of opportunities to them that wouldn’t otherwise be possible (take the bus to a friend’s house, the library, a rec program, etc). As a result, increasing the age that kids ride free is something that many other cities across the country have been trying out.
Survey results from HRM’s pilot program indicate that making transit free for kids 12 and under led to more transit use by families. While it’s impossible to identify an exact dollar amount, Transit estimates that the lost fare revenue totaled $600,000, which Transit has been able to absorb in their existing budget. It should be noted though that the $600,000 of lost fares is an estimate based on the sale of youth tickets/passes and doesn’t include any offsetting extra revenue from selling more adult passes and tickets to parents who used transit more often as a result of being able to take their kids along. Transit didn’t have a way to estimate that.
HRM isn’t done with efforts to encourage youth transit use. There is still a second component to Councillor Nicoll’s and my original motion: a potential partnership with the Centre for Education. The partnership idea is for HRM and the Centre for Education to create a pass program for kids in junior high and high school. Passes for students was pioneered in Kingston, Ontario, and not only created generations of future transit riders, but also allowed students to more fully participate in their community in terms of activities, social life, volunteering and employment. A Kingston style program is something that I would like to see here in HRM.
Staff and the Centre for Education are in discussion and it’s expected that a phased program could be possible in the future. A report is making its way up to Council from the Transportation Standing Committee that recommends an initial pilot focussing on grades 9 and 10 at four schools with good transit access (Dartmouth High would be one of them). The pilot could potentially launch later this year. If the pilot is successful and HRM and the Centre of Education can work out logistics around administration and cost, the program could be expanded to all grades and schools. That would mean that students in HRM would have access to transit, either as a free ride or through a student pass, from the time they’re born right up till the end of university. It’s an exciting possibility that, I believe, would pay off for HRM in the long-term by creating a culture of transit ridership, without even considering the social benefits to youth. Check out the video below from Kingston
Many thanks to Councillor Nicoll for championing this when she was on Council!
- Formally closed a portion of St. Margaret’s Bay Road (not the actual roadway, property adjacent) so that it can be sold to a neighbour in exchange for some of their property to enable a future sidewalk project
- Second reading for changes to the inadequate water supply bylaw
- First reading for changes to the Active Transportation grants bylaw
- Authorized the CAO to enter into an agreement with the United Way for HRM to collect optional charity donations from the parking pay machines
- Second reading for parking bylaw changes
- Increased the contract for environmental testing on the Halifax Common (pool replacement project)
- Deferred a report on the Burnside Comprehensive Development District zone to give property owners time to respond
- Amended the Community Museum Grants program to add potential funding for capital projects (program is aimed at operational support right now)
- First reading for amendments to the Halifax Peninsula Land-Use Bylaw and the Regional Municipal Planning Strategy to enable the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre to operate a homeless shelter in the old Corrections Canada halfway house on College Street
- Appointed a new building officer
- Requested staff take a more rigorous approach to the environmental section of staff reports
- Amended the terms of reference for the Watershed Advisory Board and requested a supplemental report about appointing a Council representative to the Board
- Requested staff reports on requiring permits for rock breaking/crushing (currently only blasting requires a permit), on ensuring subdivisions in rural HRM have more than one exit/entrance, and on tightening up our demolition permit process when it comes to buildings that might have unresolved tenant/landlord disputes