Council’s budget process resumed last week as we went over the proposed capital budget. You might recall discussions back in December on what the starting point for the average out of pocket tax bill should be. Staff had proposed an 8% increase to the bill, but Council asked for 4% instead.
In either the 4% or 8% scenarios, the actual tax rate will go down significantly because assessments have increased so significantly. We’re the only order of government that budgets this way: the Feds and Province never talk about increasing taxes when people make more money or buy more stuff! I don’t have a problem with HRM’s approach, as it’s more transparent, but the problem is a lot of people don’t know that this is how we budget. They often mistake the percentage quoted for a change in the tax rate and fear that a rate increase is about to land on top of their rising assessment. That’s not the case. HRM’s tax rate has consistently gone down over the last number of years because assessment increases have been more than enough to meet HRM’s budgetary needs. When we talk about the tax bill, we’re talking about the combined impact of rate and assessment, and what that means for the average resident. In looking at the tax bill, HRM compares very favourably on costs to other Canadian cities.
So what’s the difference between 8% and 4%? It might seem like a small difference, but it adds up to a pile of money. Reducing the increase in the bill by four percentage points requires $25 million in cuts. I opposed 4% because I know what a gap like that will mean, it will mean cuts to core services. As I wrote in December, that means Council is either gearing up for austerity, kicking the can down the road by adopting unsustainable measures, or will have second thoughts after seeing what the reality of major cuts is. My hope has been that it’s the third option!
As we went through the capital budget on Wednesday and Friday last week, early indications are that Council doesn’t actually have the stomach for austerity. Staff proposed cutting district capital funds, and delaying a number of capital projects including the Regional Centre Bike Network, traffic calming, and several park projects. We voted for none of those measures. The only partial reduction that Council approved was a 50% cut in the carry-over funding for tree planting ($750,000), money that HRM likely couldn’t have fully spent anyway due to staff and contractor capacity this year.
Instead of cuts, what Council asked staff for was the direct opposite. Reports were requested on options to add deferred and cancelled projects back into the capital budget, including a new fire station in West Bedford, the Bedford Library, North End Library renovation, and Eastern Shore Lifestyles Centre (combo library, rec centre and fire department in Sheet Harbour). Those are all major projects and it seems unlikely that they can all be added back into the budget without some significant tax implications, certainly in future if not the current year.
So what does the tentative capital budget mean for District 5? Here’s a list of the upcoming work, which include some carryover from 2022:
- Design work for Maybank Field
- Design work for replacing the failing pond retaining walls at Sullivan’s Pond
- Playground replacement at Findlay Community Centre
- Playground replacement at Southdale North Woodside School
- Detailed design for replacing the Hawthorne Street culverts
- Walkway replacement Sea King Drive to Emmanuel Drive
- Dustan Street paving and traffic calming
- Albro Lake Road and Sea King Drive paving and traffic calming
- Sinclair Street traffic calming
- Sheridan Street traffic calming
- Crosswalk upgrades to rapid flashing beacons at several locations on Micmac Boulevard
- Crosswalk upgrade to rapid flashing beacon at St. George’s Lane and Portland
- Crosswalk upgrade to rapid flashing beacon at Victoria and Frances
- Crosswalk upgrade to rapid flashing beacon at Windmill and Hare Lane
- Crosswalk upgrade to rapid flashing beacon at Woodland and Sheridan
- Joffre Street paving, traffic calming, and sidewalk between Sinclair and Tremont (carryover)
- Harbour Trail, Parker Street to Old Ferry
- Lyngby Avenue paving and traffic calming
- Pinehill/Frederick paving and traffic calming
- Retaining wall design for Church Street
- Paving the parking lot at Grahams Grove
- Museum strategy
One notable absence in the list of District 5 projects is the Sawmill River. It has been delayed for one year. This is largely due to a change in approach. Rather than tendering the new extension of Dundas Street as a separate project, the plan is now to bundle all of that work with Halifax Water’s project into one tender. That approach is expected to produce some cost-savings, but it means the project will now get rolling in 2024 instead of 2023. Staff do, however, hope to tender the project later this year.
With the capital budget complete except for some reports on extra items, Council will now turn its eye to the operating budget this week. As I predicted during our discussion of 4%, a lot of difficult cuts are being suggested by staff as ways to reach 4%. The complete list is available as attachment 5 in Wednesday’s report here (page 88 of 91). Some of the items need further explanation, which will come during the departmental presentations, but some of the stuff that immediately jumps out at me as having some very direct impacts on the public include:
- Eliminate career firefighters from some suburban and rural fire stations (replaced with volunteers? close stations entirely?)
- Cut the lake patrol from Lake Banook and Lake Micmac
- Cut the library collection budget (fewer books for an already undersized collection)
- Raise parking fees and introduce paid parking on Saturdays
- Reduce grants to non-profits, and heritage properties
- Decrease urban forestry maintenance and stump removal
- Eliminate student positions, hire fewer casual staff, and add more vacancy management
- Raise transit fares $0.25
- Increase Parks and Rec fees
- Biweekly instead of weekly summer green bin pick-up
- Reduce 311 service (not sure if this is hours of operation or fewer operators per shift meaning you’ll spend more time on hold or both)
- Reduction in supplementary education funding to HRCE (unknown impact on HRCE’s fine arts programming, library staff, etc)
- Transit reductions, possibly some permanent service cuts (details and options to come)
- Reduced field maintenance
- End partnership with Canoe-Kayak on the Lake Banook paddling course and fully download that onto Canoe-Kayak
- Cancel the summer concert series in Downtown Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth
- Cut arts grants
- Cut grants to the Discovery Centre and Dartmouth Heritage Museum
- Eliminate HRM’s partnership with Volta
- Add fees to use the new outdoor pool on the Halifax Common
- Eliminate the snow removal program for low-income seniors
- Eliminate sidewalk snow clearing on residential streets (presumably hand it back to homeowners, not sure if it’s just Peninsula Halifax or Dartmouth too)
- Cut snow clearing at bus stops back from the 24 hour standard to 48 hours
- Cuts to horticultural staff
- No more pick-up of bulky items at the curb (you would need to haul the old couch or mattress to Otter Lake yourself)
- Fewer mobile pick-up events for hazardous materials
Folks have already started writing me about the potential closure of the Dartmouth Heritage Museum Society, and there is so much more in attachment 5 that is problematic. Is this really the kind of city we want to live in? It’s certainly not a vision that I support. This is what the 4% austerity budget option looks like.
More details on each of the proposed reductions will be coming forward as the various departments present to Council and it’ll be up to Council to decide at that time if it’s a cut they want to entertain. Council will then make a decision on all the items on the adjustment list in April. Nothing is close to final here yet. If Council adopts a lot of these cuts, it’ll be a budget that will be very difficult for me to support.
I take heart though in the fact that when faced with cutting the capital budget, Council opted not to go down the road ($8,000,000 from street recapitalization and $750,000 from tree carryover not withstanding). I’m optimistic that Council will generally make the same choice on the operating budget. I’m hoping that when faced with the stark reality of what a slashed budget would mean for services, that most of my colleagues will decide against austerity measures that will have direct negative impact on residents and businesses.
If you have strong feelings about any of the proposed reductions, there is a chance at the start of each budget meeting to address Council (few people take advantage of the opportunity). You can also write Council via firstname.lastname@example.org