Council Update: Cogswell, Budget, Rec Fees

The Cogswell Interchange. Photo: Wikimedia

Cogswell: The major item before Council was the return of the Cogswell Plan. The last time Council looked at the Cogswell was a year ago when we approved the 60% design and directed staff to undertake additional public consultation around the public spaces. What has come back to Council in the 90% design is largely in keeping with what was presented at 60% with a few key changes including: (1) the second roundabout at Barrington and Lower Water has been removed, and (2) building block A has been reoriented so that Granville Mall can carry through to terminate with a piece of public art at Lower Water. Below is the 90% design.

Since Council last saw the plan at 60%, HRM has engaged in considerable public consultation. The consultation included an in-person formal public meeting, a multi-day design charette, and pop-ups where the Cogswell team went out to various community events. I personally ran into the Cogswell team twice: once at Alderney Market and at the Harvest Festival in Cole Harbour. In total, the team received feedback from over 1,500 people.

In addition to the public consultation, HRM partnered with a coalition of interested civic groups to bring the renowned architect Jan Gehl to Halifax to provide input. Gehl’s report is wide-ranging, covering things that HRM can control and things that we can’t (what happens with nearby private property for example). All of the feedback and the Gehl report is what spurred changes in the 60% design and what has shaped the proposed park spaces.

I’m very pleased with the Cogswell Plan. I was at 60% and still am at 90%. The Cogswell has been a source of much dreaming for decades, but when you actually start to plan it, it becomes evident that it’s a very constrained space. Constraints at the Cogswell include:

  • the site is long and fairly narrow
  • there is a significant elevation change
  • it’s the entrance into Downtown and has to carry a road through it
  • private property blocks it off from the waterfront
  • it’s home to the Halifax Wastewater Treatment Plant

What the Cogswell team has produced, despite the challenges, holds true to the principles that Council set out of creating a walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhood that reestablishes a fine-grant grid to reconnect the Downtown to the North End. The streets are narrow, the blocks of developable land are small in size, transit is prioritized with dedicated space, there is a separated multi-use trail connecting the Barrington Greenway through to Hollis Street, separated bike lanes on Cogswell that Council wants to see continued all the way to the North Park roundabout, and three new public parks. Below are some renderings of the planned public spaces. I’m particularly pleased with Granville Park, which will turn Granville Mall into something that’s not a dead-end and will become a prominent front yard to historic properties.

Granville Park and Mall
Overlook Park
Gateway Roundabout and Multi-use Trail

So what’s left to do? Consultation will continue on commemorating the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities, and HRM will be consulting with the public on the land-use plan. The land-use plan will be crucial since that’s what will determine what actually gets built. The success of the new park spaces, particularly Overlook Park, will very much depend on HRM getting the land-use bylaw provisions right to create an active and engaging street front. A lot of new buildings get this part wrong, but we do have some good examples (the Vic at Hollis and Morris and the new St. Joseph’s on Gottingen) of developers getting it right as well. Stay tuned for more on land-use in the Cogswell.

Lastly, I did want to comment on the request from the group of 26 civic organizations to delay approval. The concern expressed was that the release of the plan on Friday for approval on Tuesday didn’t provide the public enough time to comment on the work done in the 90% design. I seriously considered voting to defer the 90% plan, but I decided that I was okay with allowing it to proceed. What shaped my thinking is that I’m happy with what has been produced, there were no specific critiques other than timing, the plan had changed based on feedback, HRM staff indicated that the tendering process this year will be tight, and public consultation will still continue on the big remaining unknown, the land-use bylaw. Given all of that, I was comfortable with moving this forward. If all goes according to plan, the Cogswell will start to come down this year.

Budget Options List: On Thursday, Council largely finished our budget deliberations by going over the Options List to decide which added items to provide funding for. The list was generated over the last several weeks as each of HRM’s departments have presented their budget to Council and indicated what they’ve had to do without to get to a 1.9% out-of-pocket increase to the average home. Council then moved items that we wanted to take a second look at to the Options List. On Thursday, we went through the list line by line and voted on what to include in the budget and what to leave out. Since the list was generated by a majority vote on what items we wanted to take another look at, it’s not surprising that we opted to fund most of it. You can see the results of our votes below:

I’m pleased with the result. I don’t think I could have voted for a budget that removed funding from the library, didn’t implement Transit’s Moving Forward Plan, didn’t provide funding to operate our multi-district facilities (Alderney and Sportsplex), or left us with gaps in service at the fire department. I was pleased as well that we came up with $200,000 for tree planting since HRM has been falling further and further behind on implementing our Urban Forestry Plan. What Council’s choices mean is the out-of-pocket bill for the average home (combined assessment increases and tax rate change) will likely be $43. Since assessment increases provide enough to HRM to generate that $43, the actual tax rate will be reduced.

I write that $43 is the likely increase because Council did request that staff bring back options that would use some of this year’s surplus to offset next year’s bill. I will wait to see the staff report, but I would really need to be convinced that using part of the 2018 surplus to pay for 2019 operating costs is a good idea. My starting point is that it’s not fiscally prudent.

The surplus is the result of higher than expected deed transfer tax revenue. How much that deed transfer brings in is highly variable because it depends on how much activity there is in the real estate market. A few high value property sales can send it unexpectedly higher. The danger in using surplus funds from 2018 to pay for reoccurring operating costs like librarian and firefighter wages is what happens in a lean year? For a household, it’s the equivalent of spending more than you make and then using your savings to pay for groceries or the electric bill. It can work fine for a while, but it can get you into trouble over the long-term.

Relying on a past surplus to pay for operating costs would mean that when a lean year arrives, Council would have to raise even more revenue than usual or make painful cuts in services. It’s more fiscally prudent to pay for operating costs from taxes coming in and bank surpluses to offset one-time capital projects (we have no shortage of capital pressures over the next several years). Reducing this year’s increase to 1.9% by using surplus funds might make Council look good in the short-term, but it could set us up for trouble in the future. We’re better off having regular small increases in the tax bill rather than setting up the conditions for sticker shock.

I don’t anticipate supporting the use of surplus funds to pay for our operating costs. 2.3% is a fair increase for the services that are being provided and far less than the 2.9% that staff initially proposed. Council has been disciplined in going through the budget, while also not sacrificing core services. I wasn’t sure that we would strike the right balance when we started the 2019 process this year, but it has worked out well.

Cole Harbour All-weather Field. Photo: Turfmasters

Rec Fees: The other significant piece of business for Council was a proposed Recreation Fee Administrative Order. The Administrative Order would have set the rental fees for all of HRM’s recreational spaces, such as baseball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis courts, community rooms, and ice rinks. HRM currently doesn’t have a consistent approach as to why we charge the fees that we do. If you push on the why question hard enough, you eventually get to a “just because” or “it has always been that way.” The ghosts of amalgamation loom large here! To try and bring some sort of rational order to fees, HRM hired KPMG to examine best practices and rates in other Canadian cities. The result of that work was the recommended Administrative Order, which proposed to set fees based on the following principles:

  • cost recovery
  • best practices with comparable cities
  • subsidization for youth and community groups
  • standardized fees for like facilities

While it’s easy to agree with these principles in the abstract, the results of applying them aren’t so easy because standardization inevitably means that some people pay more while others pay less. There is no real way to get around that. Applying the principles in the draft Administrative Order would have meant a reduction in fees taken in by the municipality by about $250,000 and most of the beneficiaries of the reduction would have been youth programming. Below are the Admin Order’s proposed cost recovery rates.

I think we do need to be consistent with our fees and I’m okay with focussing subsidies on youth sports. So I was okay with staff’s proposed Administrative Order. Unfortunately, things didn’t play out according to plan at Council. While the approach would have benefitted youth sports, and ice rental rates would have come down for all groups (adults and kids), there would have been increases in adult prime-time field rates, particularly for all-weather turfs and AA ball diamonds. We received some emails from adult soccer and baseball leagues that use the premium fields and that resistance along with the complexity of it all appears to have derailed the whole thing. Council defeated the motion to adopt the Administrative Order and set fees for 2019 accordingly 8-7. The fee review will instead come back again in 2020.

I was in the minority on this one and a bit surprised at how it played out. Council voted to continue charging youth sports more than we would charge them if we had adopted the administrative order. We literally passed on adopting rational approach to fees and on lowering costs for youth sports. I think what really went wrong here was the folks who would pay more realized it and started lobbying Council, but no one who would have benefited spoke up. So the status quo remains for 2019.

I’m not sure what a deferral till 2020 will get us in the end since no one who would pay more under the proposed administrative order is suddenly going to be happy to do so just because they had a year to think about it. A year isn’t going to change that reality. Council really has three broad choices, (1) we can continue with the arbitrary status-quo, (2) we can adopt a principled approach and create some winners and losers, or (3) we can adopt a principled approach, but soften the impact by subsidizing everyone a bit more. That third option would greatly reduce the winners and losers problem, but it would shift the burden of costs from users to the property tax base, which means Council would need to be okay with raising rates to make up for lost fee revenues. Perhaps adult prime time should have some sort of discount as well. How big the hit on the budget would be would depend though on how much we sweetened the deal. No easy choices in this job! I was disappointed in how this one played out as leaving the current arbitrary fee structure in place and passing on reducing youth fees wasn’t a good outcome. Debate to resume in a year’s time.


  • Approved changes to the Noise Bylaw to eliminate the need for Council exemptions for repeat events
  • Amended planning rules to allow for an Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Goodwood, and legalizing the existing Oceanstone Resort in Indian Harbour
  • Reviewed and endorsed Halifax Water’s 2019/2020 business plan
  • Approved the sale of a former Fire Hall in Terence Bay to the Terence Bay Community Hall Association
  • Appointed Councillor Waye Mason as Council’s indigenous Community Liaison
  • Adopted names for several new private lanes
  • Authorized a less than market lease with the Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic Society for space the Society has been using in the Canada Games Centre
  • Ratified citizen appointments to the Audit Committee, and the Regional Watersheds Advisory Board