It’s been a busy month at City Hall as Council met almost every day of the week through the last half of May to revise the 2020 budget. The result is I have fallen behind on my Council summaries. Here’s what you might have missed and my thoughts on some of the stuff that was front and center in the press over the last month.
HRM has an approved 2020 budget! The approved budget is significantly different than the one we almost passed back in March before COVID-19 punched a hole in HRM’s finances. The need to borrow money to solve HRM’s short-term cash flow challenges (some taxes will be late being paid), and the need to reduce spending to account for revenue that we will never recoup (things like lost transit fares) have created significant fiscal pressure. As a result, Council and staff had to pretty much start over with the 2020 budget.
Municipalities can’t run deficits, and we have only one major source of revenue (property taxes). There is simply no way for HRM to make up for lost revenue and the cost of new debt without cutting projects and programs. Staff recommended $85 million in cuts, and, as is the case with the budget every year, Council made some revisions. Unlike most year’s though Council’s revisions were mainly to reduce the scope of the proposed cuts, not to fund new projects and programs. In total, Council added back $12.7 million to the budget. That’s not an insignificant amount, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about a difference in degree here, not in fundamentals. $73 million versus $85 million in cuts is still a greatly reduced budget! Council recognizes the reality of the situation, but we also understand that cutting deeply into core services isn’t going to help us recover from COVID-19’s economic and societal shock. Here’s everything that Council added back:
|Reduced vacancy management by half (how long a position is left empty, excluding police and fire which were dealt with separately)||$5,632,675|
|Seasonal employees (Parks and Rec, Transportation and Public Works)||$315,000|
|Summer Rec Programs||$500,000|
|Barrington Street Heritage Tax Incentives||$245,000|
|Integrated Mobility Plan Studies||$290,000|
|Beach Water Testing||$80,000|
|Water Quality Monitoring Program||$150,000|
|Heritage Incentive Grants||$200,000|
|Hand Shovelling (Snow Removal)||$225,000|
|Senior Snow Removal Program||$600,000|
|Climate Change Plan (Halifact) staff (3)||$137,000|
|Downtown Dartmouth Renewal (Sawmill River/Dartmouth Cove)||$2,000,000|
|Councillors District Capital (1/2 the usual amount)||-$750,000|
|Fire Station 2 Replacement||-$1,600,000|
|National Association of City Transportation Officials Membership||$16,300|
|Fire Department (station closures cancelled and needed firefighters in Sheet Harbour)||$1,886,900|
|Police Department (staff vacancies reduced from 28 to 12)||$2,014,000|
|Police Armoured Vehicle||-$500,000|
|Diversity and Inclusion Office||$53,500|
|Public Safety Office||$11,000|
I have more to say about the police budget and the armoured vehicle below, but some items that I was particularly pleased to see Council support that you might have missed include the long-awaited return of HRM’s lake water testing program, staff to get rolling on HRM’s Climate Change Plan (coming to Council next week), reductions in the number of vacancies in all departments, and, of course, funding to acquire land for the Downtown Dartmouth/Sawmill River project.
So how did Council pay for reducing the recommended cuts by over $12 million? Well taxes coming in are off less than initially expected, which means HRM won’t need to borrow as much from the Province ($130 million versus $180 million). Less debt means HRM doesn’t have to set as much aside for repayment, freeing up cash for other purposes. HRM is also expecting the total tax revenue that will simply never be recovered will be less than originally estimated. Less debt and less bad tax bills freed up $9.3 million. The rest will come from the unallocated portion of the 2019 surplus.
I think Council made the right call in taking some of the bite out of the cuts, while still significantly scaling back operations. There is good value in what Council added back and I don’t think the municipality’s finances are threatened by opting to cut $73 million instead of $85 million. There is still a lot of unknowns about where our finances are heading: Will there be real federal/provincial aid? Will there be infrastructure stimulus spending to take advantage of? Will there be a second COVID wave? HRM’s budget could be further impacted by what’s still to come in 2020, either positively or negatively. Given the uncertainty, it makes sense to focus on core operations, and keep our options open.
Police Budget / Armoured Vehicle:
Council has received a huge number of emails regarding policing. So many that it has been really difficult to provide any sort of individualized response (I posted my bulk reply online here).
As I wrote previously, the murder of George Floyd (and others before him) is an outrageous injustice. The response of many American police forces to peaceful demonstrations is also abhorrent. We’re clearly facing major challenges in the culture of policing. The brutality that has been on full display in multiple police departments is unacceptable and represents a level of failure that we wouldn’t tolerate in any other profession.
This isn’t just an American problem. Canadian police have had troubled relationships with Indigenous and People of Colour. That they’re treated differently isn’t something that would surprise them. What’s really changed is that with a camera in almost everyone’s pocket, it’s now something the rest of us can no longer doubt or ignore. HRM’s Street Checks Report shows here at home the systemic nature of racism in our institutions.
The request to Council from many who wrote us was to “defund” the police, but what does that really mean? From the emails I received, there is a real spectrum to the ask that ranges from putting more resources into social programs to outright abolition of police forces. I don’t support abolition. Even with the best of social programs, there will always be a need for some sort of armed force to protect society from those that mean us harm. With better social programs, we can greatly reduce crime, but I don’t believe it will ever go away entirely.
What I’m completely open to is looking at reform and most importantly, alternative approaches to policing. Right now, we ask police to respond to every social problem we face, from mental health crises, to poverty, to homelessness, to drug addiction. It’s worth asking whether there are better more effective ways to deal with these issues. Dallas’s Police Chief summarizes the problem very well: “We’re asking cops to do too much.”
What does all that mean for HRM? Council reduced the 2020 police budget by $3.5 million due to the pressure put on us by COVID-19. Council wasn’t comfortable in reducing the police budget by more than $3.5 million as many emails were asking us to do without a plan as to what we would do instead. Shifting resources or allocating more to social programs will take time to properly plan. There will be motions to come at Council and at the Police Commission. The bigger conversation isn’t going away.
So while bigger systematic change will take time, one immediate thing that Council did was to to cut the armoured vehicle. I voted against the armoured vehicle when it first came to Council in 2019 because I wasn’t convinced it was necessary. It’s potential use in a shooting situation is actually very limited. An armoured vehicle will never be the first vehicle on the scene because it’s not something that’s going to be out on patrol. It’ll be stashed in a garage somewhere. Police training since Ecole Polytechnique and Columbine focuses on immediately engaging any shooter because, if police wait, more people die. Dawson College is often cited as an example of the successful change in approach as Montreal Police put an end to that incident within 4 minutes of getting the call by actively entering the building and engaging the shooter. This article in the Montreal Gazette summarizes the evolution in police tactics. As a result, an armoured vehicle would be of little help in most mass shootings.
An armoured vehicle’s real use is if someone is barricaded in one place with a weapon and the police need to approach. That’s something worth thinking about. The RCMP already has an armoured vehicle that is stationed in Burnside though and I wasn’t convinced that our small, relatively peaceful Province of under 1,000,000 people really needs multiple armoured police vehicles, especially ones with offensive capabilities like the one HRM planned to buy. Nothing that has happened since, especially with the American examples of armoured vehicles being used against protesters, has changed my mind.
Council voted to cancel the contract 16-1 with Councillor Stephen Adams being the sole vote in favour of proceeding with the purchase. Council then, essentially, took the money from the cancelled contract and applied it to reversing cuts in the budget to our African Nova Scotian Affairs Integration Office, Public Safety Office, and new Anti-Black Racism initiatives to be determined in the future. It’s a small, but meaningful start on the bigger conversation.
A rather key decision for Council regarding the future of Transit in HRM with the arrival of both the Rapid Transit Strategy and the Electric Bus Strategy.
The Rapid Transit Strategy envisions HRM launching four bus rapid transit lines and three new ferry routes. If you’re not familiar with bus rapid transit (BRT), the idea is to make transit fast, attractive, and reliable by spreading out stops, building high-quality stops and stations (more like light rail platforms), and providing buses with dedicated lanes and other transit priority measures to get them through traffic. Basically make the bus more like rail. Ottawa is probably the most well-known Canadian example of a BRT network.
HRM’s proposed BRT network would run frequently, all seven days a week. An estimated 120,000 people (1/4 of HRM’s population) would live within walking distance (800 meters) of a BRT station. In Dartmouth, the Rapid Transit Plan would bring BRT service to the busy Portland corridor and out to Burnside/Dartmouth Crossing. Dartmouth would also gain a new ferry route to Shannon Park once redevelopment gets going.
HRM anticipates it will take eight years from the time that BRT is funded to build out the network. Timing of introducing the ferry routes, especially Shannon Park, is a little less certain.
HRM is also proposing to electrify about half the bus fleet in the next eight years. This might seem like it has come out of the blue given the recent diesel bus tender. A lot of people expressed disappointment that HRM wasn’t buying electric when that tender was awarded.
As I noted previously, the next year or two of diesel bus purchases are necessary because HRM isn’t ready for electric buses. The problem isn’t buying electric buses, it’s that we don’t have the supporting infrastructure to operate them. HRM is starting the process of addressing this issue this year with the installation of charging infrastructure at the Ragged Lake Transit Centre. When the Ragged Lake project is complete, HRM will be able to launch its first electric buses in 2-3 years.
Upgrading Ragged Lake is the easy part though of electrifying the fleet. The bigger challenge is the Burnside Transit Centre. Burnside is 40 years old, and it’s already undersized and not able to properly house all the buses that are based out of it. To fully electrify HRM’s fleet will require a new transit centre in Burnside. Replacing Burnside will be a major project with a lot of complexity (latest estimate $165 million). It’ll take several years to plan and build. The time needed to complete the Burnside project means that HRM anticipates the first electric buses on the Dartmouth side in about five years. If all goes according to plan, 50% of HRM’s fleet will be electric by 2028.
You’re probably thinking that all of this sounds great. BRT, new ferries, and a major cut in pollution by switching to electric. What’s the catch? The big risk is funding. High-level estimates indicate BRT will cost $190-$220 million, ferry routes $110-$125 million, and electrification $400-$460 million. That is a lot of money! It’s certainly much more than HRM can afford by itself. For BRT and electrification to happen, we will need funding from the Provincial and Federal governments. Our Provincial government, no matter which party has been in power, has been reluctant to contribute significantly towards public transit. Data from the Canadian Urban Transit Association shows that transit in HRM (and Nova Scotia in general) is more dependent on municipal revenues than anywhere else in Canada (apart from the very small systems in Whitehorse and Yellowknife). Other jurisdictions have much more provincial support or access to other dedicated taxes.
To really bring transit to the next level in HRM is going to require our Provincial government to stop being the Department of Highways and really be the Department of Transportation. As Councillor Mason said during the debate, “We need the provincial government to be as excited about this as they are about twinning highways.”
It doesn’t have to be a big leap. Technically funding for transit has already been committed to. The money is theoretically there. Under the Federal and Provincial Infrastructure Program, there is $210 million in federal funding for transit projects in HRM. The catch is to get that $210 million, the Province needs to provide 33.3% of project costs ($170 million). The feds, understandably, expect the Provincial government to be a partner. HRM would have to have skin in the game too, covering the 16.7% of the capital cost ($140 million).
Some funding under the various Federal Infrastructure streams has been awarded to municipalities in Nova Scotia, including funding for the Regional Centre Bike Network, but the Province hasn’t put out any calls yet for public transit. The Rapid Transit Strategy and the Electrification Strategy is HRM’s submission to the federal and provincial governments. This is our plan, this is what we want to spend the funding on. This is the future for transit in HRM.
If you’re excited about bus rapid transit and electrification, it wouldn’t hurt to write your MLA and ask them to fund the plan! Without the Province’s support, it won’t happen.
Virtual Public Hearings:
With it being unlikely that large gatherings will be permitted anytime soon, Council has approved amendments to HRM’s planning processes to enable virtual public hearings. The way it will work is people will have to sign up in advance and then after the usual presentation from the planning department and the developer, members of the public will have the opportunity to speak via phone. I actually voted against this change, not because I oppose virtual public hearings, but because of the way HRM is going to run them.
When people attend a public hearing, they often don’t know what to expect. They don’t get to see the presentations in advance or know what other speakers are going to say. It often happens that someone is moved by what someone else has said during the hearing, or has a question, and then decides in the moment that they wish to speak. That spontaneity is being eliminated in the new process. Anyone who doesn’t sign up in advance, won’t have the opportunity to address Council.
I asked staff about why HRM is taking this approach and the reasons are all technical. It’s just not possible to manage an open call for additional speakers like what happens during regular in-person hearings virtually. I accept that there are technical challenges, but I also think there are ways it could be done, such as creating a second sign-up list that people join during the meeting, or by stretching hearings over two days so that there is an opportunity for people to decide to speak after hearing the planning department’s and developer’s presentations. Yes, either of those options would make things somewhat harder to manage for HRM to manage, but the approach that municipality is going with means that some people who would speak at an in-person hearing are going to be denied the opportunity to do so in the new virtual format.
I voted against the changes to allow virtual hearings because of the reduction in the public’s ability to participate, but it ended up being just Councillor Outhit who joined me in opposition. Virtual hearings are going ahead so sign-up in advance or you’ll be denied the chance to say your peace.
My request to create guidelines around gardening that strip of land between the sidewalk and the street (the boulevard) returned to Council. The impetus for my request is that HRM’s Streets Bylaw tasks homeowners with maintaining the boulevard, but it’s completely silent on alternatives to grass. As a result, there is a perception that HRM doesn’t allow gardening when it’s really a sort of grey area in HRM’s bylaws/rules: not prohibited, but also not defined.
There are several reasons why gardening the boulevard is a good idea. Gardens are great for stormwater management as thirsty perennials take up much more rainwater than grass does. Gardens create habitat for life. Grass is, for the most part, a monoculture that provides very little from an ecological point of view. Creating something beautiful is good for community pride. Boulevard gardening is basically low-cost citizen-led placemaking and beautification. Besides improving your community, it’s a great way to meet neighbours, enhancing those informal ties that helps make society function. Finally, gardening provides physical and mental benefits. There really is no reason why HRM shouldn’t be encouraging, with appropriate rules, alternatives to boring old grass on the boulevards.
Change, however, can be hard. Guidelines and rules around boulevard gardening in other cities vary considerably and I was worried that staff would recommend something that was overly complex and restrictive. What staff returned to Council with though was a report that recommended a very light touch. The very minimal approach that HRM is proposing to adopt is:
- No plants taller than 1.0 meter to preserve sight-lines
- No permanent structures such as irrigation systems
- No woody plants or trees (HRM does the tree planting)
- Maintain 1.0 meter separation from other street stuff like utility poles, mail boxes, street trees etc
- No gardens in front of accessible parking spaces or in areas of short-term paid street parking
Those all seem like very sensible and fairly minimal rules! Council did have a good discussion about the staff suggestion to prohibit gardening in the right-of-way in places where there isn’t a sidewalk. Staff’s concern was that the grass close to the curb should be available for people to walk on if there isn’t a sidewalk. There are a few places like this in District 5, particularly in Manor Park and Crichton Park. Most of my suburban colleagues though rightfully pointed out that on most quiet suburban streets that lack sidewalks, people walk in the road not on the grass (that there are streets that were allowed to be built without sidewalks at all is a much bigger issue). In these places where the line between public and private property isn’t as obvious, many people have already gardened in the right-of-way with no ill effects. Council felt that banning gardening on municipal property where there aren’t sidewalks was overly restrictive and I expect staff will take that into account when they return with the actual modifications to the Streets Bylaw.
Once the Streets Bylaw has been amended, staff will produce a guide for residents. I’m very pleased with the direction that HRM is heading on this.
- Approved new complete street plans for the Bedford Highway and Dutch Village Road that will see improvements for pedestrians and cyclists and for transit
- Set the grants to HRM’s Business Improvement Districts for 2020
- Revised capital cost contribution requirements for Bedford West
- Amended the funding division with the Province for paying for gravel roads
- Deferred a decision on providing additional height to a development on Brunswick Street pending additional information on the proposed art gallery that would be included in the development
- Approved substantial alterations to the Dennis and Acadia Recorder Buildings on Granville Street across from Province House to allow for a major redevelopment that will retain the facade of the two heritage buildings
- Requested a report on funding paved shoulders in Mineville as part of a Provincial road project
- Requested a report on park planning for Blue Mountain Birch Cove
- Requested a report on adding Constable Heidi Stevenson to the commemorative names list
- Submitted requests to the federal and provincial governments for funding for new community centres in Timberlea and Sheet Harbour
- Appointed a new building official (these are for some reason appointed directly by Council)
- Approved appointments to the Halifax Water Commission and the new Women’s Advisory Committee
- Adopted the new Social Policy Administrative Order
- Increased the contract for geotechnical work at the St. Andrew’s Community Centre by $21,639
- Renamed a portion of Symonds Road in Bedford and adopted six new names for private lanes
- Eliminated licensing and permit fees for returning sidewalk patios for 2020 to help our struggling restaurants
- Approved an increase in advance polling locations in rural HRM for the upcoming October election in recognition of the greater geographic size of some of HRM’s districts
- Gave first reading to change the date on a development agreement for 2819-2827 Isleville Street
- Requested that the Province allow drive-in movies for occasions like Canada Day (project underway in Sackville)
- Ratified the decision to reduce summer green bin pickup in the summer from weekly to biweekly
- Empowered staff to engage with the Province on new code of conduction requirements for municipal officials