Agenda, Budget Committee, March 29
HRM’s 2023 budget is now largely complete. Council completed our last step of approving the budget adjustment list on Wednesday. The budget adjustment list is created as each department presents to Council. Council moves motions to potentially spend more money on an existing or a new service, to reduce spending, or for more information. The result is a long list of potential additions and deletions to be considered. The reason we consider everything together at the end of the process is so that Council can weigh each measure in terms of its overall priority and the impact on the tax bill.
After going through the list, the tax bill impact (combined assessment and rate) for 2023 will be 5.8%, which is significantly below staff’s starting point of 8%, but more than the 4% Council was aiming for. It became very apparent through the budget process that the only way to get to 4% would be through painful cuts that weren’t supported by the public. I’m pleased with where things have ended up and that Council didn’t opt for austerity to shave about $80 off the average tax bill. Below are some of the notable adjustments and debates.
The main drama on Wednesday was over staffing for HRM’s Climate Change Plan, HalifACT. HalifACT is an ambitious plan that has won many accolades. The plan commits HRM to carbon neutral operations by 2030 and requires the municipality to drive change in the wider community. The vision is for all of HRM to be carbon neutral by 2050. Key areas needing work include greening transportation and making our buildings much more efficient. 2050 seems faraway, but to stick to HRM’s carbon budget, we actually have to make significant changes over the next 10 years. The time to act on climate change is right now.
When staff first brought HalifACT to Council in 2020, Council rejected the staff recommendation to delay implementation until after COVID’s economic fallout had passed. We’re not going to drive change at the pace and scale that’s necessary off the side of someone’s desk. HalifACT requires significant and dedicated effort and there is no negotiating timelines with the atmosphere. On my urging, Council rejected delay in 2020 and instead asked for an implementation plan. The implementation plan was completed in 2021 and envisioned significantly staffing up HRM’s Environment group over three years. The first hires under the resource plan were made in 2022, but things almost went off the rails this year.
Due to the financial pressures that HRM is under, staff planned to not make any HalifACT hires, and they weren’t planning on telling Council that. The issue only came to light through me questioning staff! It’s one thing to recommend a pause, but it’s quite another to not bring options to Council. It shouldn’t have been up to me to root out that HalifACT implementation was in trouble. In my opinion, this was an significant error in judgement on the staff side. This should have been clearly identified as an issue for Council.
Since staff hadn’t prepared HalifACT as a budget adjustment list option, I had to ask for a briefing note during the department presentation instead. The briefing note came back with the final adjustment report and put me in the difficult spot of having to argue for the seven HalifACT positions as last minute additions to the adjustment list. Council ended up fairly split on the issue and I felt very much back on my heels throughout the debate as some of my colleagues took the stance that if the HalifACT positions were needed, staff would have asked for them as part of their budget submission. The final vote ended up being one of the more dramatic finishes to a debate in my six years on Council.
Some of my colleagues had asked me about hiring two or four staff for HalifACT instead of all seven. I didn’t want to compromise. Climate change is urgent and we’re not going to achieve our goals without the people to do the work. Based on what had been said though, my count was that I likely only had seven votes. Nine is the magic number at City Hall so it looked like I was going to lose in my attempt to get all seven HalifACT staff included. Getting four would be better than zero so, painful though it was, I decided to bend.
To amend a motion that’s already on the floor without a vote requires the seconder to agree. Councillor Morse was the seconder for the HalifACT motion and she refused! She wanted to see things through to the vote on seven. She was ever so right and I’m so grateful for the call she made because the final tally was a surprise 9-8 in favour! Myself, Morse, Cleary, Mason, Smith, Mancini, Stoddard, Blackburn and Outhit voted to fully staff HalifACT. The rest voted against. Lesson, don’t play poker with Councillor Morse!
I was thrilled, but also surprised by the outcome. Stoddard indicated to me over the lunch break that she was on the fence, and from what Outhit said on mic, I had him down as opposed. They both ended up supporting the motion, making it 9-8. I talked to Tim after and he changed his mind based on the debate and that is what is really awesome about City Hall. When we have a debate or discussion, a good argument can actually change the outcome. We’re not boxed in by partisanship. At City Hall, the debate really matters because people can and do change their minds. An individual councillor can really make a difference. This was my closing pitch:
I’m very grateful that a narrow majority of my colleagues voted to fully fund HalifACT this year. Climate change is the issue of our times and nickeling and diming it (four staff versus seven isn’t even a 0.1% on the tax bill) is hardly treating it like the urgent emergency that it is. I’m so glad that Council once again committed to doing better.
Policing once again came up in our budget list discussions. Councillor Clearly moved to not hire four additional RCMP officers. His motion was passionately opposed by many of my colleagues who feel that policing isn’t adequate in suburban and rural HRM. I didn’t support adding the RCMP officers to the budget adjustment list in the first place and nothing I heard on Wednesday led me to change my mind.
The RCMP’s pitch for more officers seems to be largely based on a population per officer statistic. The information cited, however, wasn’t really broken down any further to look at what national standards are in rural and suburban areas and how that relates back to a municipality that has RCMP policing in both as well as HRP in the more urban areas. The RCMP also cited that no new officers have been added in 12 years, which was simply not true. Council voted to add six officers in 2018 so the claim of no new officers in a decade was inaccurate (I think what was meant was only six in a decade since that’s what was in the report, but that’s not how it came out in the presentation).
Since 2020, I have had a consistent position of not supporting adding more uniformed officers (HRP and RCMP) while we’re in the midst of figuring out how policing will change to respond to detasking and how HRM’s particular model of having both HRP and RCMP might change. I would need a very good argument to bend on that. In trying to find that argument, I asked the RCMP for info on response times. If they’re as understaffed as they say, than there would presumably be a measurable impact over the years on their work. The RCMP don’t have that information, but said it should be available in the joint HRP/RCMP policing study that is currently underway. This was insufficient for me and so I joined Councillors Cleary, and Mancini in voting against adding the additional officers. Given the damning Mass Casualty Report that came out just two days later, I’m very comfortable in my no vote.
HRM really needs some sort of actual standard for what the appropriate level of policing is in urban, suburban and rural HRM. Absent any sort of standard, adding more officers feels is a decision that’s more a leap of a faith than a decision based on actual data.
If you were following media coverage of Wednesday’s budget meeting or social media, you’ve probably already heard that changes are coming to parking fees. No one ever likes to pay more. Whether it’s taxes, or user fees like transit fares or parking, it always go over like a lead balloon. What is equally unpopular are tax increases and service cuts. It’s a circle that can’t be squared. All Council can do is try to find a reasonable balance between these competing priorities.
On parking, we opted to proceed with the rate increase, add paid parking on Saturdays, and turn down extending paid parking into the evening hours. HRM hasn’t charged for Saturday 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 don’t have paid parking on Saturday are Winnipeg, Regina, and London. Go Downtown in almost any big city in Canada on Saturday and parking isn’t free. Charging for parking ensures turnover, better reflects the cost of providing the road space, and helps lessen the impact on the tax rate. Given that Saturday’s are typically a paid parking day in Canadian cities, I was okay supporting Saturday parking in HRM. The motion to not implement Saturday parking failed narrowly in the day’s second 9-8 vote. Myself, Smith, Cleary, Hendsbee, Kent, Deagle-Gammon, Morse, Blackburn and Cuttell voted for Saturday parking.
Summer concerts will return again this year to Ferry Terminal Park. Council’s adjustment listed included $200,000 for free public concerts in Halifax and Dartmouth. Staff expect concerts will run for seven weeks on weekends in July and August in Ferry Terminal Park. Downtown Halifax will see a more compact three week offering. The concert series will be quite a bit smaller than before because the federal and provincial COVID recovery dollars that paid for the larger show over the last two years aren’t there anymore. The concert series is now exclusively funding by HRM.
There was some discussion around whether the concert series was still needed. I did point out that while the concerts in Grand Parade were new, Dartmouth had always had an HRM public concert in the summer: Canada Day at Alderney. Post-COVID, the funds and resources for the Alderney concert got folded into the new concert series at Ferry Terminal Park. Dartmouth’s Summer Sunshine series is the heir to Canada Day at Alderney. In Downtown Halifax, on the other hand, the Grand Parade concerts were entirely new. Cancelling the summer concert series would end HRM’s long-standing commitment to live music in Downtown Dartmouth and the impact of doing that would also be different in Downtown Dartmouth compared to Downtown Halifax. Downtown Dartmouth doesn’t get the same spinoffs from big community events like Pride or Jazz Festival as Downtown Halifax does. Losing the HRM concert investment would hurt far more in Downtown Dartmouth than it would in Downtown Halifax because there are just fewer events to fill the calendar. It’s more important on this side of the Harbour.
All of that seemed to be convincing as no one followed through from questions with moving a motion to remove the reduced concert series from the budget. Music will play again this summer in Ferry Terminal Park.
Here’s what else was built into the budget from the department presentations
|Close HRM’s Civic Innovation Outpost at Volta Labs||-$260,700|
|Reduce 311 service on holidays||-$75,000|
|Administration fee for private road associations that have their funds collected via area rates||-$70,000|
|Cut half the Bridging the Gap internship program||-$700,000|
|Increase in street permit fees||-$25,000|
|Increase in tipping fees for commercial organics||-$110,000|
|Reduced mowing in the public right-of-way and end of flower bed maintenance in cul-du-sacs||-$70,000|
|Naming rights for the Commons Aquatic Centre||-$100,000|
|Return of 15% interest on overdue tax accounts (temporarily reduced to 10% during COVID)||-$1,300,000|
|Independent legal fees for the Board of Police Commissioners||$100,000|
|Staff for the Public Safety Strategy||$361,100|
|Additional HRM navigator||$125,000|
|Add a psychologist and occupational health and safety nurse to Human Resources to support HRM’s emergency departments||$322,400|
|Increased funding for the library collection to maintain its current (although inadequate) size||$300,000|
|Improved capacity for towing vehicles via a performance based contract||$350,000|
|Rural and suburban development plans||$450,000|
|Rental registry positions||$120,400|
|Framework for addressing homeslessness, including existing and new initiatives||$1,132,800|
|Increased arts funding||$125,000|
|Expanded affordable access program for Parks and Rec||$500,000|
|Four transit supervisors to focus on public safety on transit||$379,200|
|Planner to coordinate the Green Network Plan implementation||$89,600|
|Bedford West Fire Station and new Headquarters||$16,000,000 (debt)|
|Survey work at MacDonald Field in Fall River for the lighting project||$75,000|