Council Update: Parking, Student Bus Passes, Budget 2021

Agenda March 20
Agenda Budget Committee March 21-22

Parking Changes:
HRM is adjusting the rules around street parking: the unpopular four hour time limit is being removed. The four hour limit was put in place when the new pay machines were installed. The idea was to ensure that long-term parking was directed to off street locations, and that there is regular turnover of high-demand curbside spaces. HRM received complaints though that the four hour limit was too limiting. What HRM is replacing it with is demand based pricing. Demand pricing means that parking prices will be higher at times when the parking demand is greatest. The proposed new rate structure is as follows (Downtown Downtown Dartmouth is zone H)

Staff feel the goal of ensuring turnover can be met with pricing. HRM expects prices will be regularly tweaked to reflect demand.

Acadia Street. Photo: Google

The other parking change that is on the way is around the Dartmouth General in North Woodside. HRM is going to implement paid commuter parking in the area. A commuter pass will cost $40 a month and anyone with a commuter pass will be able to park in new permit only areas on the street. HRM will still keep some short-term hourly parking available as well. The reason for the change is because of the very high demand in the area. Mount Hope Avenue and Acadia Street are regularly jammed every weekday with parked cars. HRM anticipates having the commuter parking zone up and running soon.

High School Student Pass:
Regional Council gave first reading to revisions to the User Fee Bylaw that will enable a student pass pilot program with the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) and Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial (CSAP). The pilot program will provide all students in four high schools, including Dartmouth High, with transit passes. The idea behind the student pass program is to create future riders by developing a culture of transit ridership. Getting someone to use transit if they’ve had no experience with it in their formative years is harder to do than if someone grew up with transit as part of their life. It’s something that other Canadian cities have been gradually adopting.

The first city in Canada to launch a partnership program with their school board to provide passes was Kingston, Ontario. Besides growing ridership, results from Kingston indicate that providing access to transit also allows students to more fully participate in the community, both in terms of employment and in extracurricular activities and volunteering. Here’s a video that summarizes Kingston’s experience (I have shared it before, but it’s really good!):

So when will students at Dartmouth High and the other three schools (Prince Andrew, Ecole Mosaique and Ecole du Sommet) get transit passes? Staff, HRCE and CSAP are hoping to rollout the program this year. If everyone is satisfied with results of the pilot, the next step will be to expand the program to other schools. A larger student pass program will require negotiating a funding agreement between HRM and HRCE and CSAP. HRM does benefit from a student pass program, but there are also likely to be costs in terms of lost fare revenue and, in some high demand areas, the need for additional bus service. How a larger program is paid for will need to be worked out with HRCE and CSAP. The student pass program is an initiative that Councillor Nicoll and I worked on together during the last Council (the under 12 piece is already in place), and it’s exciting to see the more complicated last chunk with HRCE and CSAP coming together.

Budget 2021:
Council has basically concluded our 2021/2022 budget! It took two days last week to go through the budget adjustment list (collection of extra items that we set aside for further consideration). In the end, it was all made much easier by better than expected deed transfer tax revenue and by the aid provided by the federal and provincial governments. In 2020, HRM had been budgeting for a decline in deed transfer tax due to COVID’s economic impacts, but the market did the exact opposite, producing a significant surplus last year and allowing HRM to project higher amounts in deed transfer going forward. The federal and provincial assistance came in the form of the Restart Fund, which has helped HRM offset COVID financial losses for things like transit revenue, and through the one-time doubling of the one regular direct federal transfer that municipalities receive: the Community-Building Fund (formerly the Gas Tax). The upshot is that HRM ended up with more money than expected, giving Council some choices to make.

Tax Bill
After Council funded the adjustment list items (more on those below) from higher than expected ongoing deed transfer revenue, the remaining deed transfer cash was enough to reduce the average tax bill (combined impact of assessment growth and tax rate) to 1.5% as opposed to the originally planned 1.9%. 1.5% would have meant a reduction in the actual tax rate, and I was okay with using what was left in deed transfer to do that. The Mayor wanted to go further though and reduce the tax bill increase to 1.0%. I was fine with 1.5%, but couldn’t support 1.0% because, to get to 1.0%, HRM has to dip into the 2020/2021 surplus.

As a matter of principle, I don’t support using one-time funds, like surpluses, for year-to-year expenses. My feeling is that surpluses should be directed towards long-term projects, not used to pay the bills in the next fiscal year. HRM has no shortage of big ticket projects under development including electrifying transit, the Burnside transit garage replacement, library capital plan, all the various road projects coming out of the Integrated Mobility Plan, and HalifACT. HRM has low debt levels, but borrowing should be considered carefully because it ends up being more expensive over the long-term. That doesn’t mean that debt is a bad word. It’s not realistic that HRM can save up for everything in advance. When HRM has opportunities though to reduce what we will need to borrow we should take them. That to me is actually what fiscal prudence looks like since it ends up costing us all less over the long-term.

The other issue with using surplus money for year-to-year budgeting is that there is risk that next year mightn’t be as rosy. The economy will hopefully continue to recover, but the one-time federal and provincial dollars that allowed us to balance the books this year aren’t likely to be there in 2022. Next year, HRM could also have an additional $7 million in costs right off the bat if Council approves the art gallery request for funding, and when the impending download of many kilometres of provincial roads comes to pass. Staff are already forecasting a revenue gap next year that will need to be made up, and with limited levers to pull, that likely means cuts or taxes. Smaller but more regular increases in the tax bill are better than creating the conditions for sharper spikes, which is potentially what holding the rate artificially low by using surplus funds from previous years could do. It would have been wiser to have banked the surplus in its entirety.

Unfortunately, I lost that one. In the end, just myself, Mason, and Morse voted against 1.0%. It’s not the end of the world. The vast majority of the surplus is still being put into reserve, but it’s not a good precedent for what we do with surplus money as it potentially will cost everyone more in the end through higher debt levels and could, depending on how things go this year, set us up for a sharper tax increase in 2022.

The Adjustment List
As noted, Council approved the adjustment list of budget items and paid for the extra items through deed transfer tax revenue. Here’s what was added:

ItemCostMy Vote
Anti Black Racism Projects$72,500Y
Reinstate two Councillor Print Newsletters (up from one)$56,000Y
IT contract expert for Auditor General’s office$71,000Y
Increase affordable housing tax rebate from 25% to 50% of a non-profit’s tax bill$446,000Y
Study of police body cameras$85,000Y
Journey to Change police training$60,000Y
Court disposition clerk $85,800Y
Expanded library food program$50,000Y
Additional funding to help the Library purchase e-books$100,000Y
Retain Route 55 beyond Craigburn Drive$50,000N
Additional traffic calming$1,000,000Y
Increase tree planting to get to 75% of Urban Forestry Master Plan target$1,315,000Y
Reduce summer green bin pick up to biweekly-$850,000Didn’t come
forward for a vote
Reduce recycling pick up to biweeklys-$308,500Y
Increase hazardous waste mobile events (6 additional locations)$115,000N
Improve transit stop snow removal timeline to 24 hours from 48$2,000,000Y
Discover Halifax Tourism Plan$250,000Y
Parks and Rec events program in Halifax and Dartmouth$600,000Y
COVID event grants$150,000Y
Multi-district facilities COVID subsidies$1,757,350Y
Contribution to Develop NS waterfront art project at Queens Marque$125,000Y
Sackville Youth Centre$85,000Y
Study of E-coli in First Lake in Sackville$150,000Y
Heritage Conservation Grants (Old South Suburb and Schmidtville)$250,000Y
Additional Planning and Development staff (10)$805,300Y
Major project resource plan (in-year staff hiring)$1,250,000Y

It’s a big list and I have written about most of the items on it in my previous Council summaries (Planning, Library, Police, Parks and Rec, Transportation and Public Works). Rather than go through a detailed explanation of each item, I’ll focus on what had public interest, anything specific to District 5, and where the debate was.

Photo: HRM

Solid Waste
Solid waste items were mainly about potential cuts, including reducing recycling pick up to every two weeks and permanently reducing summer green bin pickup to every two weeks. While there were very few complaints about the lack of summer green bin pickup last year, Council did receive a lot of feedback over the last few weeks that was largely opposed to making the change permanent. It seems most people were understanding that HRM had to scale back due to COVID last year, but they still wanted the service restored. In the end, Council was unanimous in not wanting to reduce green bin service since no one put it forward for a vote. With no vote, the default budget option of weekly green bin pick up in the summer months prevailed.

On recycling, Council did opt to reduce pick up to once every two weeks. Most of the feedback that Council received over the last several weeks was that, since recycling is the least smelly of our waste, it wouldn’t be a big deal to store it an extra week. The vote though ended up being a close 9-8 split. It was close because the change is being built into the new waste collection contracts, meaning that it won’t be something that HRM will be able to easily reverse if it proves to be problematic. It will be the service standard for the length of the pick up contracts, which could be as long as five years once renewal options are taken into account. Several councillors were okay to pilot biweekly recycling, but were less keen on signing on for an extended period with no easy way out, which is how we ended up with 9-8. The change is going ahead and it will save HRM over $800,000 next year.

55’s current last stop in Portobello

Route 55
Blue bag pick up wasn’t the only contentious 9-8 vote. 9-8 was the theme of the day! Council had a vigorous debate on changes set out in Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan for the Route 55 Waverley. The 55 runs from Portobello to the Bridge Terminal via Mic Mac Mall. The new 55 will no longer service Portobello, and will instead turn around via Craigburn Drive. The new 55 will still go to the Bridge, but it will now include a stop at Alderney to provide access to the Ferry Terminal. A number of Craigburn residents spoke against the proposed changes during the public participation section, and the area councillor, Cathy Deagle-Gammon, asked Council to not cut service to Portobello.

The debate over the 55 wasn’t like past transit controversies in Beaver Bank and the Sambro Loop. The 55 has very low ridership beyond Craigburn, with several stops averaging zero daily boardings. Over the course of the whole day, there are typically just 12 passengers on the Portobello portion of the 55’s route and five of those 12 are at the turning loop, and may actually be false readings being triggered by bus drivers stepping outside for a few minutes between trips. Public concern wasn’t coming from riders upset about losing their bus, it was coming from Craigburn residents who don’t want buses travelling on their street. Residents expressed concern about bus speeds, noise, exhaust, and that buses might bring strangers into their neighbourhood, putting children at risk.

The Craigburn concerns are largely without merit. Transit runs buses on residential streets throughout the municipality without causing issues. Craigburn is a typical street and if buses are somehow unsafe there, then there are many, many streets throughout HRM where they should be removed. Transit indicated that retaining service beyond Craigburn would have scheduling impacts and cost $50,000. So what Council was being asked to do was to keep running nearly empty buses, at higher cost, while providing worse service to other portions of the 55’s route where there is ridership, because of safety concerns that have virtually no merit from people who largely don’t even use transit. That wasn’t something I could support and it was defeated 9-8. Changes to the 55 will go ahead.

Major Project Staffing
In yet another 9-8 vote, Council opted to approve creating a fund for hiring for major projects. What made this contentious is we don’t exactly know how this money will be used right now. We don’t know what the new positions are going to be, which is different than typical requests from staff for more resources. The idea was to set aside money to be used for hiring as staffing requirements are better refined rather than having to wait until the next budget cycle in 2022/2023. The cash is a sort of placeholder for things like transportation projects or HalifACT. Council wasn’t keen on the blank cheque like nature of the proposal though so the motion was amended to require the CAO to bring Council information on any new positions prior to any hiring taking place. That made the idea of an unidentified fund palatable to a majority and it passed 9-8.

Crichton Avenue Bus Stop by Sullivan’s Pond

Traffic Calming, Trees and Snow
Council approved an additional $1,000,000 for traffic calming projects. Most of these will be in suburban areas, but it does include speed bumps in the school zone on Hawthorne Street and Erskine Street and a separate project on Celtic Drive and Glenwood Avenue. The extra funding also means that HRM will get through more projects this year on the Traffic Calming List than would otherwise be the case, shortening the timeline for other streets.

Snow clearing standards for transit stops are being improved. Council budgeted $2,000,000 to increase the standard for snow clearing at bus stops from 48 hours to 24 hours. The exact cost is unknown since the change will need to be negotiated with the contractors. This was also a 9-8 vote as several councillors expressed concern about the cost and whether it will really improve outcomes significantly or not.

Council added an additional $1,315,000 to the budget to pay for extra tree planting. HRM’s Urban Forestry Plan had envisioned HRM planting 26,700 trees by 2023, but, unfortunately, due to years of inadequate funding combined with rising tree prices, the municipality has fallen way behind on tree planting. Making up for years of chronic underinvestment can’t be done all at once. Staff estimate that $1,315,000 in each of the next three years will get HRM to 75% of what was originally planned. Not great, but better than the barely 50% of the Plan that HRM was otherwise on course for. If you’re wondering why trees are so important and a wise investment for any city, check out this video from Planifax

Police Items
Even more controversial than the Route 55 changes was Council’s decision to fund three asks from Halifax Regional Police (HRP). The extra police items are a clerk to record court decisions, training for officers, and to hire a consultant to prepare a report on the possible use of body cameras. The total of these three items is $230,800. I voted for all three as I think they all have merit. Body cameras are a hotly contested idea that the Police Commission wants to study further, the additional training (Journey to Change) comes out of the Wortley report, and there are real risks in terms of inaccurate criminal records checks if court decisions aren’t promptly recorded. The extra $230,800 totals 0.2% of HRP’s total budget.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, allocating any additional money to policing is controversial and Council heard from a number of activists during public participation. HRM is serious about looking at changing policing in our community and in that regard, processes have been launched to define “defund” in HRM, to look at civilianizing some policing duties, and to examine the shared Halifax Regional Police/RCMP model. It will take time to deliver on all of that though and, in the interim, policing costs still rise every year due to contractually negotiated salaries.

Police are unionized and don’t have the right to strike so contract disputes are settled through binding arbitration. HRM and the Police Association were unable to agree on wages in the last contract and the result of arbitration in 2017 was an annual increases of 2.75%. HRM doesn’t have a choice on paying for 2.75% in increased salaries. Rising salaries total $2.1 million of HRP’s $2.7 million increase in expenses, which the department was partially able to offset through increased revenue, producing a total increase of $2.5 million. Almost all of the police department’s rising costs are salaries. With no new sworn officers and the vast majority of costs stemming from rising salaries, this is very much a status quo budget. HRP is in fact the only HRM department that hasn’t had their budget fully restored to pre-COVID levels ($89.7 million March 2020 versus $88.7 million now), despite the salary increases that have occurred since then. A status-quo budget is the appropriate path while we figure out what policing is going to look like in the future.

Changing Policing:
Policing reform wasn’t just on Council’s budget agenda. During our regular Regional Council meeting, staff provided a report recommending an approach for how HRM will look at police reform. The work will proceed in phases with Phase 1 focussed on the feasibility of civilianizing various police functions including traffic enforcement, victim services, mental health and addictions, and bylaw enforcement. Phase 2 will be to create a new three year community safety strategy, which will include implementation of changes identified in Phase 1. HRM is hoping to engage the public on Phase 1 in the fall with a report to Council by March 2022. The goal is to have a new strategic plan in place by December 2022. So we now have a plan for carrying out the work and a timeline.

Freedom House Ambulance Service. First paramedics in 1960s Pittsburgh. Photo: University of Pittsburgh

I very much believe there are opportunities to civilianize parts of policing. The emergence of paramedics is an illustrative example of the kind of change that might be possible. Before the 1970s, it was often police who picked up people in medical distress and drove them to the hospital. Not surprisingly, many people died needlessly in the back seats of police cars because police aren’t paramedics! They’re not the best people to do that very specialized job. Paramedics emerged as a better way to deal with medical issues and now none of us thinks twice about their existence. If you have 20 minutes, the 99% Invisible podcast on how paramedics arose as a profession in Pittsburgh is very much worth a listen and very relevant to the moment we’re in today.

Silver Sands. Photo: CBC

Silver Sands Access:
Council also approved a motion from Harbour East Community Council concerning Silver Sands Beach in Cow Bay. The problem at Silver Sands is the old access route to the HRM owned beach is eroding away. The public has the right to access the beach over an easement, but the land covered by the easement is basically gone, leaving the HRM beach almost completely cut off from the HRM parking lot. To fix the issue, Council has authorized staff to acquire additional lands. Costs will be covered by HRM’s Parkland reserve. Hopefully there will be a solution!

Other:

  • Received a presentation from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education on the supplemental funding that HRM provides for arts funding and library staffing
  • Approved what is essentially a swap for a piece of property in Elderbank to fix an issue in which a quarter of an HRM building is actually sitting on private property
  • Approved ongoing funding for the Mobile Food Market
  • Changed the Marketing Levy Special Event Reserve Grant to allow emerging events to qualify for funding under that category for up to five years rather than just three
  • Wrote off a batch of bad debts that were surprisingly miniscule in size (just over $10,000 in total)
  • Requested a staff report on giving the Resource Opportunities Centre a permanent seat on the Western Common Advisory Committee, and on street lighting procedures/standards
  • Awarded 2021/2022’s heritage grants

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