Agenda Budget Committee March 31
Just one item on Council’s agenda last week, the Parks and Recreation budget. Parks and Rec is a department that attracts a lot of attention because the services it provides are close to people’s day-to-day lives. The Parks we visit, the recreation programs we attend, the events we go to, and the fields we play on are all part of Parks and Rec’s world. There was a lot for Council to go over. Here are some of the highlights
One of the items I was looking for in the Parks and Rec budget is planning for the next phase of the Sawmill River project. HRM has done a lot of work over the last two years to get ready for the project’s next phase. From Alderney down to King’s Wharf has been well planned and includes daylighting the river, new park space, extending Dundas Street into Dartmouth Cove, and a new multi-use trail to join the Harbour and Banook Trails together. I’m very pleased with the work that staff have done and I’m confident in the direction that HRM is heading in on the Sawmill’s lower section
The big remaining unknown is what daylighting will look like from the end of Phase 1 by the Lock4@Starr Condo to the intersection with Alderney. This middle section in Starr Park/Irishtown Road is the spot where there is the most space to work with. With fewer constraints, this is the spot where there is the most potential for creativity.
So what could we do? While the Sawmill River project has received almost universal praise, the one reoccurring suggestion is for the River to be more accessible. Phase 1 went through areas where there wasn’t much space to work with, which meant that the River had to go into a narrow channel. To handle storms, the channel had to be deep, creating a steep drop down to the bottom, and resulting in the need for a barrier to protect people from falls. The fence that was installed is a nice faux-wrought iron style, but it’s still a fence. With the Sawmill River’s next phase, it might be possible to do something different in Starr Park because there is more room. It’s the spot where it might be possible to allow people to get closer. I’m very keen to make sure we fully explore what could be done here.
The challenge is that if we leave planning this section to Halifax Water, the result will likely be a continuation of the channel that exists now. That’s not because Halifax Water lacks creativity, it’s because they’re a regulated utility whose legal mandate is to provide service at the lowest possible cost. They legally can’t spend lots of extra money on placemaking. To create something more than a nice channel requires HRM to be at the table as a partner.
Planning for the next phase of the Sawmill River is very much an urgent item. The clock is ticking. Halifax Water wants to proceed with the rest of the daylighting project in the next 2-3 years. They can’t wait forever because the old pipe that we rely on to carry the River is at the end of its life. It needs to be replaced. That’s why it’s so important that Parks and Rec identify planning for the Sawmill River in this year’s budget so that we can sort out just what we’re going to do in Starr Park. If we delay, the opportunity will be lost and it won’t come around again for another 50 years, if ever.
So, I was very relieved to confirm that planning for the next phase of the Sawmill River project is part of Park’s budget for this year. Parks will engage with Halifax Water so that we can figure out what the actual possibilities are for this space. It’s something I will continue to follow closely.
Budget Adjustment List:
Like all the department presentations, Parks and Rec had some additional budget options for Council to consider. Possible cuts included reducing the Discovery Centre’s grant, not hiring summer students to work on HRM’s gardens and flower beds, and not increasing the arts grant program as originally planned. Council didn’t advance any of those cuts, but we did put forward a series of items (almost all one-time costs) for additional consideration in April. The added items are:
- $250,000 Tourism Master Plan
- $125,000 for public art on the Halifax Waterfront
- $600,000 COVID events program in the Regional Centre
- $150,000 COVID events grant program
- $85,000 youth centre
- $1,757,350 Multi-District Facilities subsidies
Council opted not to advance two items: a $100,000 grant request by Neptune Theatre, and $7,000,000 ($1,400,000 a year for five years) for the new art gallery. Not including those items on the list wasn’t actually a no. Council didn’t include them simply because we don’t know enough at this stage to build them into the budget. Both items have staff reports that will be coming forward later this year. When that happens, Council will be in a position to properly consider the pros and cons. Below are some details on what was added to the list:
Council agreed to move $750,000 in events funding to the budget adjustment list for additional consideration at the end of April. $150,000 of that would go towards helping events organizers, while the other $600,000 would be aimed at creating a series of events in Downtown Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth, likely concentrated during the summer season. The idea is to bring people back to our Downtowns.
Council did have a discussion about not concentrating funding in our two Downtowns, but ultimately decided to focus efforts Downtown. The rationale is that tourism is still likely going to be pretty limited until 2022. As long as the health situation remains stable, this year’s visitors are going to be from elsewhere in the Atlantic Bubble. In that market, what does HRM have to offer? It’s not lighthouses and beaches or wilderness, that exists all over Atlantic Canada! What we have to offer in our local market is the big city experience. We’re the place where you can go take in a show, eat out at a variety of different restaurants, and do some shopping. Making sure our Downtowns are lively plays to our strength.
As I have noted previously, HRM doesn’t have the ability to target tax relief to our struggling hospitality sector. The big challenge of COVID is that impacts have been disproportionate. Some businesses are really suffering while others are having their best years. While HRM can’t target tax relief, making sure there are draws Downtown and trying to bring in visitors is something the municipality can actually do to help our hospitality industry. I think this will be money well spent.
Another large item that Council added to the budget adjustment list was $1.7 million in additional funding for HRM’s various multi-district facilities. Multi-district facilities are regional type facilities that serve a wide section of the community. Examples include the Sportsplex, Canada Games Centre, and Cole Harbour Place. While it doesn’t provide physical fitness type programming, Alderney Landing is also considered a multi-district facility.
All the multi-district facilities are operated by community boards that submit their budgets, plus any request for subsidies, to HRM. Some level of subsidy is typically always required as it’s really challenging to cover all the costs of a public facility with fee revenue alone, especially for the older facilities. Given that COVID closed everything down for parts of last year, cancelled events that would normally provide booking revenue, and greatly reduced the number of people that can be in a space together, it’s not surprising that there have been financial impacts. To balance the books, the multi-district facilities have requested an additional $1.7 million. This compares to the $1.5 million that HRM provided pre-COVID.
I’m pretty supportive of spending additional money to avoid program cuts at HRM’s multi-district facilities. HRM has been provided with $46 million in “Restart Funding” by the federal and provincial governments to lessen COVID’s impact. The clear intent of the Restart program is to help municipalities, which can’t legally run operating deficits, avoid having to cut services due to COVID’s financial impacts. To me, it would be disingenuous to take the money, and then turn around and force the multi-district facilities to cut programs, hours, staff, maintenance, etc. Bridging the COVID gap is exactly what that money was intended to do and so I was happy to move multi-district facility subsidies to the adjustment list for additional consideration.
One HRM Membership:
One thing that has always seemed short-sighted to me is that HRM’s various facilities all have separate memberships. If you have a Sportsplex membership, you can’t access other facilities like the Canada Games Centre or Cole Harbour Place and vice versa. This is problematic because people live busy lives. You might work in Bayers Lake and want to go to the Canada Game Centre on your lunch hour, but live in Dartmouth and want to access the Sportsplex or Cole Harbour Place on evenings or weekends. Our system isn’t built for that. I’m sure the result of HRM’s siloed membership system is we have fewer people using our facilities than might otherwise be the case. HRM needs to change that, we need one membership to access them all
The reason Parks and Rec operates its large facilities in silos is because of how the facilities are managed. Each of HRM’s multi-district facilities is run by an independent board made up of members of the local community. These boards have generally existed since each facility opened, meaning that most date back to pre-amalgamation days! Each board operated differently, and had different software for their facility, procedures, and approaches to membership. HRM and the former municipalities, for the most part, also had only one primary objective for the boards: balance the books. Putting financial concerns ahead of everything else didn’t leave much room for other considerations. The entire system wasn’t designed for a One Membership approach.
The first steps to getting to One Membership are to reform facility governance and implement a common software platform. It took longer than expected, but over the last few years that work has largely been completed. All of the facilities have new operating agreements with HRM and they almost all now use the same Legends software system for managing and booking space (Centennial Pool is the last one to be added to Legends). HRM has relaxed its focus on the facilities balancing the books and now manages budgets through Council with a clear expectation that some level of subsidy is going to be required.
With that important groundwork complete, Parks and Rec’s next task is to map out a plan for a One Membership project. We’re still likely a few years away from having One Membership as there is still a lot of work to do. The Parks and Rec director indicated her intent is to stand-up a project team in 2022. I will continue to follow up on this as it really feels like a no brainer.