Council Update: Budget Deliberations

February 15, 2017 – Today we continued budget deliberations at Committee of the Whole. The way the budgeting process has worked this year is a base budget was prepared by staff and council was given options as to how we could provide better service (increase in costs) or make cuts (decrease in costs). Council came up with a few of its own options for the list as well. Today we went through everything on the list to decide what is “in” and what is “out.” You can see the complete list in the attached report (link below). Here is what I saw as some of the highlights:

Alderney Ferry: Very pleased to report that my colleagues supported me again in keeping the extended service on the Alderney Ferry for at least the 17/18 fiscal year. To accommodate the Big Lift, 15 minute service was added on weekday evenings along with 30 minute service all day on Sundays. Ridership has responded accordingly, increasing by almost 50% over the last two years. The Sunday hours have been particularly well-received. The big unknown is what will happen to ridership after the Big Lift wraps up this Fall? Will people change their patterns again or has the Big Lift created the opportunity to permanently switch some over to the ferry? Rather than cutting hours on a service that is working very well, I want to see some post Big Lift ridership data to properly gauge demand.

Staff did suggest an interesting variation on the weekday hours. We could run 15 minute service all day long until 8:30pm with 30 minute service continuing into the later evening. I suspect staff’s suggestion is a good idea. My gut is that evening ridership is likely concentrated in the 6pm-9pm time slot while there are potentially a lot people who would use the ferry if it ran 15 minutes over the lunch hour. I have asked transit for ridership data to support just to be sure because I don’t want to mess too much with a service that has seen a significant increase in ridership. More to come on this.

False Alarm Fee Increase: Council opted to include an increase in the cost of false alarms. Our alarm fees are some of the lowest in the country and haven’t changed since 1999. Under the new system, the first instance of a false alarm each year will still be free. Most of the increase is focussed on the third or fourth false alarm. The finance folks estimate that false alarms cost us about $1,000,000 a year, of which, only a small portion is returned to HRM via fines. More importantly, false alarms tie up police and fire. I voted in favour.

Library Collection and IT: Council approved $250,000 for additions to the Library collection. This was a compromise as the Library had been asking for $500,000, but that vote was lost on a tie (too much for some on council). $300,000 was also approved to start replacing the Library’s computers, half of which are five years old and are showing their age. $300,000 will allow the library to replace 1/3 of them. I supported all of the Library motions.

Artificial Fields: We voted to keep the field monitor positions and declined to increase fees at this time. The sense I had from the room was that some councillor’s didn’t want to touch fees at all while others felt they should be looked at in context of the overall fee review that is currently underway. I voted in favour of keeping the field monitors and against increasing fees.

Parking Fines: Council opted to not increase fines for parking meters, but we will be asking the Province to increase fines for a whole variety of other parking infractions including parking in an accessible spot, bus stop, on the street during the winter parking ban, fire lane etc. These are fines that HRM collects, but that we don’t have direct control over, hence the provincial ask. There are some significant parking technology upgrades coming and many councillors indicated that a fine increase to meters without making it easier for people to comply with the law wasn’t fair. Fines will likely be reconsidered in the future after the parking technology upgrades are complete. I voted in favour of this compromise. I’m personally not opposed to a small increase as our fines are some of the lowest in the country and it’s problematic that a fine is currently the same price as parking in a Downtown garage. The initial staff suggestion of $50 was too much, but I could have gone along with the $30 alternative option. I’m happy though to wait until the technology upgrades are done and to consider fines in the broader context of our parking strategy after there has been a more complete public discussion.