Agenda March 23
Agenda Budget Committee March 24
One of the items on Council’s agenda that I’m really interested in was a request by Councillor Morse for a staff report on providing assistance to community groups who want to set up outdoor rinks. There is probably nothing so quintessentially Canadian than a backyard rink and sometimes, people band together to create the experience for the community as a whole. Unfortunately, the cost of insurance has become an issue for many community groups. What was once about $1,000 is now several thousand dollars. It’s gotten to the point where it really can’t be paid for just by passing the hat.
This has had a direct impact in District 5 at the Findlay Community Centre. A few years ago, a group of folks who live around the Findlay came together to set up a rink behind the Centre’s gym. The rink was a big success, drawing kids from all over. It cost HRM virtually nothing (a few bucks from District 5 capital to help with materials and some staff time), created community ownership and involvement, and was just an awesome amenity to have during those bleak February months.
The rink turned out to be short-lived though. Pre-2019, HRM’s insurance company provided low-cost insurance to community groups. This wasn’t mandated, it was a bit of community service on the company’s part. That program was scrapped though and, the result was the rate for the Findlay rink doubled in 2020. I managed to work out an interim solution with staff to fund the insurance, but by the time that was approved, it was late January. The organizers felt putting the rink together for what could be just a week or two wasn’t worth it. This year the rink never really got off the ground, which with COVID, is maybe just as well given that it was a small space where distancing might have been a challenge.
As it turns out, the Findlay wasn’t alone. Councillor Morse ran into similar problems with a community rink over in Fairview.
So I was really happy to work with Councillor Morse to put forward a motion at Council to see what might be possible. HRM could offer grants, or possibly include rinks on municipal properties in the municipality’s insurance. HRM already provides assistance to community gardens on insurance so why not rinks? $2,000-$4,000 is a drop in the bucket for HRM and we might get cheaper rates too given the economies of scale. I’m confient that HRM will more than get back whatever our cost of insurance in volunteer labour and community development. Maybe it’ll even help resurrect the Findlay. Staff will return to Council in the future with a report.
Budget 2021 Transportation and Public Works
This week, Council reviewed the proposed budget from Transportation and Public Works (TPW). TPW always takes a lot of time as it’s a department that is very close to the day-to-day lives of everyone in HRM. Roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, parking, garbage, traffic calming, and tree planting all flow through the department. A lot of the big ticket stuff, like paving, and road design, that TPW staff work on is actually paid out of HRM’s capital budget (see what’s coming for 2021 here). What Council had before us this week was TPW’s operational budget.
Like most departments, this year’s TPW budget is mostly a restoration of stuff that was cut in 2020. One of the new initiatives that’s really important in Dartmouth is an expansion of street sweeping frequency on the streets around Lake Banook and Lake Micmac. This change is coming out of the Banook-Micmac Pollution Study. The study recommended more frequent street sweeping to gather up materials that collect on our streets before they have a chance to wash into the lakes. Details still to come on what that will look like and what streets will be covered, but I was very happy to see this built into the staff prepared budget.
Budget List Green Bins and Recycling:
Council did move five things from Transportation and Public Works presentation to the options list for additional consideration. Two of the five are actually reductions: (1) don’t restore weekly summer green bin pickup and (2) reduce recycling pickup to biweekly as well. The savings for biweekly as opposed to weekly green bin and recycling would be $1,700,000 a year.
This summer wouldn’t be the first summer without weekly green bin pickup. In 2020, as part of many COVID cuts, HRM stopped offering weekly pickup. I did hear from some folks who were upset about that decision, but it was nowhere near as controversial as many of us on Council thought it would be. TPW noted the same, receiving much less feedback than expected. I get the sense that, for most people, ditching weekly pickup might have been a bit of a nuisance, but it was generally not a big deal. Those who did find it problematic though, really, really didn’t like the change. I met some of them on the doorstep during the election campaign! We also received feedback from some folks who suggested we should have cut the weekly recycling instead since recycling is typically more easily stored.
I’m not opposed to having weekly service for green bins or recycling, but HRM’s resources are limited. Everything Council does is a choice. There is no scenario where we get to keep taxes low, add or even just maintain services, not cut anything, and not take on debt. We can pick one or two of those, but not all four. It’s just math. We still have more departments to hear from and the budget adjustment list already has some good initiatives on it. Is summer green bin pickup more important than doing traffic calming in every school zone? How does it rate in terms of trying to keep the tax bill low or ensuring that HRM has the dollars available for transformational capital projects? These are the sorts of things that Council has to consider. I was comfortable moving biweekly green bin and recycling to the adjustment list so that we can consider those service change as part of the overall budget list at the end of April.
Budget List Tree Planting
One of the extras that Council added to the list is a potential addition of a yet to be defined funds for more tree planting. HRM has an Urban Forestry Plan and the municipality had committed to planting 26,000 trees by 2023. The reason HRM is so keen on trees is because of all the benefits they provide: they sequester carbon, cool the urban environment, shade pavement (it actually lasts longer by trees!), remove pollution from the air, manage stormwater, create a buffer between street and sidewalk, provide habitat for nature, increase property values, increase in value in time (what other asset does that?!?!), provide mental health benefits, and are just generally all around awesome. Planifax did a great video on trees and why we should consider them as important as other infrastructure in our cities:
Unfortunately, as great as trees are, and as ambitious and award winning as HRM’s Urban Forestry Plan is, it was never properly funded, particularly in the early years. The impact of not providing the resources needed to get the job done each year is cumulative. The result ten years later is HRM has barely planted 50% of what we committed to. We’re very far behind and haven’t been putting our money where our mouth is on this.
We can’t go back in time, but it would be nice not to fall so woefully short. I have raised trees every year and half the time I have been able to convince my colleagues that this is an area where we need to do better. This year, I asked staff for a briefing note on what it would take to get to 75% of the trees we had planned over the next three years. The quick answer was about $5,400,000. That’s the result of eight years of underfunding! We would need over $10,000,000 if we were going to actually meet the 2023 goal in full. Splitting a revised 75% target over three years would be $1,800,000, which is still a lot! I doubt that’s something we’ll be able to do. We’ve dug ourselves a deep hole. The best we can do now is start to incrementally commit more money to trees. Staff will bring back some options for Council to consider.
Budget List Snow Clearing:
Council voted to add $2,000,000 to the adjustment list to increase snow clearing timelines at transit stops from 48 hours to 24 hours. This one is a lot of money, but if we want people to take transit, it feels like one that we should really do. A two day wait is a long time. We’ll look at that again at the end of April.
Councillor Cleary has indicated that when budget deliberations resume on Friday, he will attempt to move the second snow clearing option that’s not included in the draft budget, $4,500,000 to increase sidewalk clearing standard for residential streets (priority 3s) from 36 hours to 18 hours. That will be a hard one for Council to absorb. It’s a lot of money that will unquestionably hit the tax rate. That’s not a total that we can absorb. We’ll see where Council goes with that on Friday.
Budget List Hazardous Waste:
Council voted to add $116,000 for extra mobile waste depots to the adjustment list for further consideration. $116,000 buys about six additional mobile pick ups, meaning we might get a second event at Mic Mac Mall if Council ends up approving the funding. I voted to add this to the list for further consideration reluctantly. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, it’s just hard for me to justify when, at the same time, we’re thinking about reducing green bin and recycling collection to save cash. We’ll see where everything lands in April when we have the complete adjustment list, but this year, extra depots feels more like a nice to have.
- Final approval of the new Boulevard Garden standards
- Passed a resolution in hopes of securing funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to further develop our tree inventory
- Initiated a process to look at amending the C-2C zone in Fairview to enable development of the the corner of Main Avenue and Titus
- Approved providing an endorsement to the federal government for adding Wallace Hills to the Sipekne’katick Reserve
- Extended the pilot project period for HRM’s naturalization strategy to 2022 since almost all our projects were delayed due to COVID
- Accepted Harbour East’s recommendation to intiaite amendments to the Eastern Passage Plan to enable the construction of accessory buildings along the Passage’s traditional working waterfront
- Requested a staff report on allowing Councillors who aren’t part of the Audit and Finance Standing Committee to Chair the Special Events Advisory Committee
- Established the framework for heritage grants in the Old South Suburb (Hollis and Barrington from Sackville down to Peace and Friendship Park), and Schmidtville Heritage Districts