Budget Wish List: Over the last several weeks, each of HRM’s departments has presented a budget based on a 1.9% out-of-pocket increase in the bill to the average home ($36.59). As the departments have presented, each one has identified what they’ve had to do without to get to 1.9%, as well as options where they could spend more or less money. Council has then had the opportunity to move items that we would like to take a second look at to the options list, aka the “parking lot.” On Friday, the long string of presentations came to an end with the revised police budget. While the broad outlines of the whole HRM budget are now set, Council now has the critical task of reviewing the options list on February 28. Below is the whole list (it’s a long table!):
|Item||Cost||Implication if not Funded|
|Retain Legal Article Clerk Program||$113,900||No more articling positions with HRM|
|Legal Assistant||$54,300||Inefficiencies in Legal Services|
|Admin Assistant Government Relations External Affairs||$76,700||GREA office continues to operate without any support|
|Social Policy Lens||$40,000||Lack of support for development of social policy|
|Conflict Resolution Workplace Specialist||$100,000||HRM’s human resources has to continue managing with existing staff|
|VOLTA Partnership||$250,000||No partnership to enhance HRM’s IT capabilities|
|Increase facility rental revenue||($50,000)||External parties, not community groups|
|Increase fee recovery from external parties||($75,000)||External parties, not community groups|
|Senior snow program||$100,000||Usual scramble to find money mid-year since the program has been continually underfunded each year for the demand|
|Tree Planting||$400,000||Deliver only 60% of urban forestry plan’s 2023 tree planting target (we’re falling behind)|
|Winter Works Salt||$712,500||Scramble to find money mid-winter since TPW’s salt budget has never been properly funded|
|Moving Forward Together Transit Sackville||$679,000||Failure to implement improved transit service in Sackville|
|One-time capital contribution to the YMCA||$1,000,000||New YMCA will still be built, but they will have to borrow more, meaning they’ll be mortgage poor with resulting impacts on programming. One-time item to be funded from reserves with no direct tax rate impact|
|North American Indigenous Games||$500,000||HRM wouldn’t deliver on needed support for this major event. One-time item to be funded from reserves with no direct tax rate impact|
|Grass shrub/contract||$30,000||Contracts for grass in suburban areas would be underfunded|
|Multi-district Facility Subsidy Increase||$164,000||Major program disruption at Alderney Landing. Impacts on Cole Harbour Place and Centennial Pool|
|Trail Maintenance||$20,000||Work not completed as quickly|
|Arts Halifax||$150,000||Funding pressures on HRM’s arts organizations|
|Parks Materials||$10,000||Squeeze on park operations for materials such as gravel|
|Public Safety Initiatives||$45,000||Delay of improving community mobilization team’s capacity|
|CUPE Contract Conversion||$60,000||HRM will have to pay this regardless as it’s a union contract clause. Not budgeted for so would need to come from another program if not funded|
|Two Planner 1 positions||$154,000||Improvements made in delivering timelines on development applications could be lost|
|Two Regional Planners||$192,000||Less resources for Regional Planning initiatives such as Centre Plan, Green Network Plan, etc|
|Planning Director’s Office Report Controller||$80,000||Continued struggle to manage large workload in the Planning department|
|Transportation Demand Management Consultant||$100,000||Lost opportunity to maximize use of HRM’s existing transportation network through demand management (IMP recommendation)|
|Eight Parking Enforcement staff||$596,000||Continued parking complaints and loss of $1,750,000 in potential fine revenue|
|Increase in parking tickets issued and planning applications||($1,750,000)||Increased revenue contingent on hiring the staff|
|Two bylaw compliance officers||$159,000||Lost opportunity to improve bylaw enforcement|
|Water Quality Monitoring Program||$150,000||No development of what a water quality monitoring program for lakes in HRM (planning work in 2019, implementation in 2020)|
|Rural Transit Funding||$220,000||Underfunded community transit organizations in rural areas like Musgo Rider and Bay Rider with potential service implications|
|Accessible Taxi Incentives||$500,000||Need Charter change before program can be launched. Unlikely to be possible in 2019 whether funded or not|
|Sackville Navigator Program||$90,000||Significant work needed before program can be launched. May not happen in 2019|
|Avoid reduction in Library staff (4-8 full-time positions)||$350,000||Exact impact unknown as board would likely try to manage by not filling vacancies as they come up. Impact on hours and programming throughout branches|
|Food Literacy Program||$50,000||Loss of opportunity to expand the Library’s food program to all branches|
|Senior Isolation Program||$50,000||Loss of opportunity to reduce isolation for seniors through community gatherings in the libraries such as teas|
|Full-time Firefighters in Fall River||$363,000||Fall River Fire Station will continue to operate with full-time dayshift and volunteer overnight shift despite standards indicating call volumes and location warrant 24/7 full-time crew|
|Avoid firefighter service disruptions||$997,000||To balance at 1.9% the fire department is expecting that they’ll be occasionally short firefighters at some stations. $997,000 needed to avoid that.|
|Eliminate Police background check fee for volunteers||$200,000||People volunteering for community organizations would continue to have to pay the fee for background checks|
|Reductions on the Options List (generally not controversial)||$5,186,000|
|Grand Total||$1,932,400||$55 more a year on average tax bill|
Obviously there is a lot of good stuff on this list! To hit 1.9% would mean the additions would have to be about $4,000,000 less than they are now, which would mean making some painful choices. Getting to 1.9% would mean not doing most of the options list. I’m not interested in going that route because I don’t think it’s desirable or necessary. We could do a lot of the key items on the list if we instead allowed the cost to the average homeowner to rise by 2.5% – 2.7%. This would mean an increase in the bill to the average home of around $50 instead of $37. My own inkling is there is good value here and that holding the increase to 1.9% isn’t a smart move for a growing city if it means we’re, for example, not meeting our fire standards, cutting library staff, not implementing our transit plan, or lying through figures by intentionally leaving things like senior’s snow clearing or salt out of the budget when we know that we’ll have to pay for them. $13 more is a bargain for what we’ll get. More to come on this debate at the end of the month.
I wanted to quickly note as well how HRM actually calculates the 1.9% – 2.9% increases since there is a lot of confusion about this. The increases we’ve been debating are not an increase in the tax rate, they’re an increase in the tax bill. What the municipality is focussed on is what the out-of-pocket cost is to the average home. The real cost that we all pay to run HRM. To get to that figure, the municipality calculates what the budget expenditure will be, where assessments are going, and then what the tax rate needs to be to cover the cost. What you get at the end is a figure that is based on what average homeowner will pay out-of-pocket (high assessments more, low assessments less).
What most people don’t realize is that by approaching the budget this way, HRM is basically zeroing out the assessment lift in its calculations. The 1.9% or 2.9% or wherever it ends up isn’t on top of assessment increases, it factors the change of assessment in. Depending on how much of the options list Council decides to fund, the actual tax rate may very well decline again this year, which we don’t aggressively celebrate because the actual out-of-pocket cost for most people still goes up. We’re the only order of government that does budgeting this transparently. The federal and provincial governments don’t ever reduce sales or income taxes to account for inflation and the rise in salaries, they pocket that yearly increase without a word.
The old days of Council touting a flat or even declining tax rate while allowing the increase in assessments to fill the municipal coffers instead are truly gone. We’re focussed on the end reality of what it means for the citizens who pay the bills. That’s what the debate over 1.9% – 2.9% is. The flipside of doing things this way is that Council will never be able to tout a flat tax bill. That will almost never happen because HRM’s costs go up each year, even if we don’t launch any new programming, because of inflation and salary increases. Any year in which we don’t raise the bill is a year where we’ve cut services somewhere or are putting stuff off until tomorrow.
Taxis: Besides Budget Committee, Council also met last week on Tuesday for our regular bi-weekly meeting. The major item on the agenda was proposed changes to the taxi bylaw. The addition of 600 new licenses is what was top of mind for many, but the report actually recommended a whole bunch of non-controversial bylaw changes. Here’s a list of all the substantive changes:
- Require all taxis to have GPS
- Require all drivers to complete a training course, including sensitivity training
- Require all drivers to complete a winter driving course
- Require all drivers to pass English language testing (Canadian Language Benchmark level 5)
- Eliminate the existing Halifax, Dartmouth and County zone system
- Increase taxi owner licenses from 1,000 to 1,600
- Prohibit people convicted of major criminal or driving offenses from renewing or obtaining a license
- Require Child Abuse Registry checks for all drivers
- Require all drivers to accept debit and credit cards
- Require licensed vehicles to be less than 7 years old
- Prohibit drivers from speaking on cell phones, including headsets, while transporting a passenger
- Require, at the time of inspection, a Motor Vehicle Inspection with at least 30 days left on it
- Improve the standards for qualifying vehicles as limousines
- Add cannabis and vaping to non-smoking sections of the by-law.
- Taxis shall charge the rates as set by the Halifax International Airport Authority from the airport
- Require a current medical letter on file with HRM before a driver can refuse to transport a service animal
- Confirm there are no limitations to the number of accessible licenses an individual or corporation can have.
Licenses: The main sticking point in the taxi report was the recommendation to increase the number of licenses from 1,000 to 1,600. HRM’s taxi industry is an owner-operated one, which is a bit of an unusual approach in North America. Casino, Bob’s and Yellowcab don’t own vehicles themselves or employ drivers. They’re dispatch services that connect customers to drivers.
Taxi licensing has two parts: a license for the driver and a license for a car (roof light). HRM has more licensed drivers than it does roof lights, which means that, even though we have an “owner operator” model, there are many drivers who are driving someone else’s car. HRM doesn’t have good data on how widespread the practice is. A roof license can’t be resold, but it also isn’t taken away unless someone loses their class 4 drivers license. What that means is that drivers who may have moved onto other work or have retired, have no incentive to give up their roof light. Why would they? As long as they maintain their class 4 license they can make money by leasing it to someone else.
Leasing roof lights can be problematic and has setup some situations that are downright exploitative. The cost of a roof light from HRM is $50, but because the supply is limited, a lot of the licensed drivers that lack a roof light have to pay much, much, more to use someone else’s. They have to pay that cost on top of all the other expenses (gas, dispatch company, etc). There have been instances where drivers have even signed over car ownership to a driver that has a roof light just so that they can get on the road. There are varying opinions on the point of taxi regulation, but, to me, setting up a situation where one group of drivers can exploit another group isn’t one of them!
The HRM report and consultant’s conclusion was that HRM lacks supply and that we should add more roof lights. Adding more roof lights is expected to address supply complaints, but it has the added benefit of ensuring that anyone who currently wants a roof light and has been forced to lease from someone else can get one. Folks who still want to lease for whatever reason should also see a reduction in the premium paid too since the increase in supply will make individual leases less valuable.
Accessible Cabs: Unfortunately, the taxi report highlights that HRM’s policy on accessible taxis has failed. Our owner-operator model makes it hard to add accessible taxis to the marketplace because the cost of an accessible vehicle is entirely born by the individual operator (Terry Morier in the photo above paid $70,000 for his van). We don’t have taxi fleets where the added cost of an accessible vehicle can be distributed across multiple license holders. Unfortunately, it not only costs more to buy an accessible taxi, it also costs more to operate one because of the specialty equipment. It also tends to be less profitable because many accessible passengers require more time to load and unload, reducing the number of calls a driver can take, and those calls for an accessible tax come from all over HRM, increasing the amount of dead-time that a driver spends travelling between calls. The accessible taxi business isn’t a great place to make money.
To try and overcome these market problems, HRM has provided an incentive. Any driver that wants to get an accessible taxi gets to skip the line for a roof light. No need to wait 13 years! From 2010-2012 the Province also offered financial assistance to encourage drivers to buy accessible vehicles. Eight drivers benefited from Provincial assistance and the combined incentives of skipping the line and financial support propelled the number of accessible taxis in HRM to a peak of 57. Unfortunately, that early success hasn’t been sustainable and the number of accessible taxis has dwindled over the last few years to just 16 today.
The rise and then fall in the number of accessible taxis clearly shows that HRM’s current model is broken. The question for Council and the Province is what do we do to fix it? If we issue 600 licenses HRM’s existing incentive of being able to skip the line will disappear, but that doesn’t seem like a big deal since it’s not working now. HRM could mandate a 100% accessible fleet, but that would be quite costly, and not even prominent accessibility advocates are arguing for that approach. It would also be hard for HRM to mandate a threshold of less than 100% because our taxi industry isn’t made up of corporate fleets. How do you pick who has the misfortune of having to provide an much less profitable and more expensive accessible vehicle when every taxi operator is a business of one? About the only option available to HRM is to try and eliminate the financial barriers.
What HRM has opted to do is to ask the Province to amend the Charter to allow the municipality to provide funding to drivers for the purchase of accessible vehicles and, importantly, a per trip subsidy to account for the higher cost of operating an accessible taxi. This requires a Charter amendment because HRM isn’t allowed to provide grants to individuals or businesses. I’m supportive of this approach because HRM is pretty much out of options. Without intervention, the market isn’t going to fix this issue.
Uber: While a lot of people wanted to talk about transportation network companies (Uber, Lyft, etc) there really wasn’t much at Council about them. Our current bylaws don’t outright prohibit Uber or Lyft from being here. They could opt to setup in HRM as a dispatch company like Casino or Yellowcab and hire licensed drivers. None of the transportation network companies will ever do that though because it doesn’t fit their business model. Council accepted the staff recommendation for a supplementary report on ride sharing. So expect to hear more about Uber and Lyft in the future.
Gray Arena: The disposal of the Gray Arena was back before Council. The Gray and Bowles Arenas were made surplus by the construction of the four-pad in Burnside. The Bowles was subject to a right of first refusal that gave the adjacent property owner the right to buy it at market value. The Bowles’s neighbour exercised that right and it was sold in 2018 to become the home of a private athletics school, East Coast Varsity. The Gray, however, has taken longer to dispose of because HRM opted to keep it operating for one more season to minimize the disruption of roof repairs at Cole Harbour Place, and to explore the potential for community reuse of the facility/land.
The path that each HRM property disposal takes depends on how it’s classified. Council opted to classify the Gray as a community interest disposal back in 2018, which meant that, over the last several months, community groups have had the chance to look at how they could potentially reuse the Gray. Several groups expressed an interest, but in the end, only Soccer Nova Scotia submitted a proposal. Soccer Nova Scotia wanted to convert the Gray into an indoor field, but their proposal was made redundant by East Coast Varsity’s addition of an indoor field dome next to the Bowles. The need for an indoor field space in Dartmouth has been met. As a result, Soccer Nova Scotia indicated that they were no longer interested in the Gray, which meant that, after several months of people kicking the tires, there were no offers from any non-profits.
With no opportunities to reuse the Gray for community use, Council reclassified the Gray disposal as ordinary, which means that the property will eventually be sold to the highest bidder. It’s unlikely that anyone will want to reuse the building as a rink. The site will likely be redeveloped by the new owner. With that in mind, Councillor Mancini asked HRM to undertake a planning process to establish a vision for the land’s reuse. I was happy to support his motion. So the Gray will be sold for redevelopment, but not before the community has a chance to provide input into what the future of the site might hold.
Access-a-Bus: It wasn’t just accessible taxis that was on the agenda on Tuesday, Council also adopted the Access-a-Bus Continuous Service Improvement Plan. Access-a-Bus is a necessary service for many in HRM, but it is one that has often let people down in the past. Users have to book in advance and there is no guarantee that a particular time-slot will be free. The result has become self-defeating: people can’t be sure the bus will be available so they book in advance and then, when plans changes, they forget to cancel. The result is Access-a-Bus is heavily booked, but no shows/late cancellations are high, accounting for 12% of all bookings. Since everyone is rushing to book trips for fear that the bus won’t be available if they wait, the booking operators are swamped every morning. For the user on the other end, it’s frustrating having to get up early and then have to wait to get through in hopes of securing a time-slot for a trip that just over 1 in 10 won’t even make. The whole thing isn’t working very well and HRM is committing to change the situation.
HRM’s goal with the new service plan is to allow same-day bookings, and never deny a trip. HRM recently upgraded the booking software, which, without adding any new resources to the system, actually increased capacity by 5%. This has allowed for 5,000 additional trips since the software’s launch in April 2018 through to October 2018. Over the next several months, six new buses will be added to HRM’s Access-a-Bus fleet, which will improve capacity. HRM believes the combination of improved efficiencies in the Access-a-Bus system alongside the new vehicles will allow the municipality to greatly increase capacity without the need for further resources, while also reducing the operating costs. If transit can successfully pull this off, it’s going to be a good news story that uses existing resources much more efficiently, while making the system much more user-friendly. I have been fairly impressed with Transit’s new manager of operations and will be watching keenly to see how this turns out.
- Approved an increase in HRM’s tender with Nova Bus for the purchase of new buses
- Amended Administrative Order 1 to allow for the use of consent agendas
- Set new lease terms with the Kinsmen Club of Sackville for their building by First Lake
- Approved new mid-rise development proposals for Chebucto Road and McFatridge Road
- Revised the density bonusing agreement for 5515 Clyde Street to reflect the development’s larger size
- Established an evaluation plan for the upcoming South Park Street bike lane project