Council Update: Penhorn Lake, Rental Registry, Non-Profit Tax, Snow Damage

Edge of Penhorn Lake Park

Agenda, January 24
Agenda, February 7

Penhorn Lake Park Sale
Council has approved the sale of a small piece of land in Penhorn Lake Park to Penhorn Residential Holdings GP (the company that owns the adjacent redevelopment). The land totals 221.7 square metres, the equivalent space of seven transit buses. The land is being sold to accommodate a future public street in the Penhorn redevelopment.

Parcel OD-3 (shaded) is the area to be sold to allow a proper curve of the new street

Selling park land isn’t something that HRM does often. There needs to be a pretty compelling case to do so. I questioned staff if we actually need the future road at all given that the road’s primarily purpose is to access one of the new buildings (Block A)? Also, if we do need it, could it instead be a much narrower driveway? Unfortunately, neither of those options work, because the density of the Penhorn redevelopment means a secondary access road is required. That access requirement is being met for now by connecting the cul-du-sac into the back of the Sobeys parking lot. If the big box commercial gets redeveloped in the future, it’s likely a public street would be extended from the cul-du-sac out to Portland. The road is needed for the current and possible future phases of the redevelopment, and it needs to be built to be a street.

I also wondered, given the size of the Penhorn site, why this road couldn’t be accommodated on the developer’s land instead. The issue isn’t a lack of space, but a lack of space in the right spot to make the road’s curve safe. The angles needed for the new intersection don’t work without a corner of Penhorn Lake Park and the elevation of the site means a retaining wall is required to hold everything up. If Council said no to the sale, the development would have to be significantly redesigned and the multi-use trail that is proposed to run alongside the road by the park might end up having to be reworked.

Given that the amount of land impacted is small, that the road is truly necessary for access, that refusing the request would impact the whole Penhorn plan, which has been fast-tracked to supply housing, that HRM is getting all the land back, and that there is a clear public benefit to be gained in the form of the future multi-use trail, I grudgingly supported the recommendation. The land will be sold at market value, and then be transferred back to HRM as retaining wall, street, and path.

Apartments on Portland Street at Five Corners

Rental Registry
Much to the dismay of some, HRM is moving forward with adopting a rental registry and updates to the municipality’s Minimum Standards Bylaw (M-200). First reading is complete and second reading will take place in the near future. This has been a long time coming.

The goal of having a registry is so that HRM has a comprehensive listing of all the rental units that exist in the municipality. Having a list then becomes the basis for proactive inspections, something that tenant organizations like ACORN and non-profit housing providers have been calling for. Most of HRM’s landlords do a good job, but, unfortunately, some take advantage of people in desperate situations. I distinctly remember door knocking in my very first election campaign in 2012 and coming across a leaky pipe in one apartment building that had been leaking for so long that there were mushrooms several inches tall growing out of the hallway carpet. No one should have to choose between deplorable conditions and something that they can afford, but some people do. The municipality’s existing complaint-based system puts all the onus on the tenant and many people in precarious situations fear potential retaliation if they speak up. Landlords who take advantage of people shouldn’t be in business.

So how does a registry help? It’s hard to do any sort of proactive work if you don’t know what’s out there. A registry will become the basis for HRM to move from a complaint-based approach to one that is proactive. HRM has tried to make the change as painless as possible for landlords: the registry is one-time and free! Landlords will have until April 1, 2024 to register their units.

Making the registry free and one-time were changes that came out of discussion with the industry, but it has still not been enough to win support. The Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia remains steadfastly opposed and has been writing the Provincial government to try and get the Houston government to overturn the registry. IPOANS response is disappointing. All that is being asked is for people to register their building once, at no cost, and do some really basic stuff, including:

  • have a maintenance plan
  • clean dryer vents every 12 months
  • ensure doors actually lock
  • plumbing works
  • kitchen cabinetry and fixtures work and aren’t missing components
  • windows are sealed against the elements and have screens to keep insects out
  • common spaces are free of garbage and standing water
  • working fire extingishers
  • emergency lighting that is tested to ensure it functions when the power goes out
  • working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors

You can see proposed revisions to HRM’s M-200 bylaw here. That anyone is opposed to a free, one-time system with some very basic maintenance requirements (stuff that everyone should be doing) is baffling. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary, but that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is one in which some people, unfortunately, let mushrooms grow in hallways.

Margaret’s House in Downtown Dartmouth. Photo: Google

Non-profit Program Changes
Council deferred some significant changes to HRM’s tax relief for non-profits programs. Under the program, non-profits that own property (and some that lease) are eligible to have their property taxes reduced or even completely forgiven. In 2022, a total of 245 organizations received tax reductions through the program for 810 properties, totaling $5,751,066 in forgone HRM revenue.

While the program has provided important financial support to organizations that make our municipality a better place, it has, however, also operated without any set of clear principles as to who gets what. The result is groups providing similar services sometimes receive very different levels of tax relief. The inconsistency stems from three main causes

  • Many of the tax arrangements date back to pre-amalgamation and reflect differing realities and priorities in HRM’s former municipalities
  • In HRM’s early days, changes to the program required a public hearing, meaning that politically connected organizations tended to do better
  • Funding for the program has always been limited, giving groups that were already established an advantage over new applicants

The program has also been hard to understand because of its complex conversion of commercial to residential rates before tax reductions are then applied.

To try and bring some order and fairness to the whole thing, staff have proposed a number of changes, the biggest of which is to set relief by the type of service an organization provides. The days of similar organizations receiving different levels of tax relief will be gone. Complex calculations will also disappear, as HRM applies a single non-profit rate to all organizations that will be reduced depending on the service the non-profit provides. There will also be a maximum tax payable to smooth out inequities created by vastly differing property values. The proposed categories (schedules) and the varying levels of relief (exemption) from the non-profit benchmark rate is shown below in Table 2.

This all sounds great, but, unfortunately, any systematic change always produces winners and losers. Most organizations will benefit from the changes, but there some outliers that will pay more. Council was particularly concerned with some of the particular outcomes in Schedule C, the cultural, recreational, environmental and community transit group. One of the groups that will pay more is every canoe and paddling clubs in HRM. This is because paddling clubs were previously 100% exempt from paying taxes, but would now pay 25% of the proposed non-profit rate ($0.275 per $100 of assessment). The biggest winners were also on the water, HRM’s yacht clubs, which would save tens of thousands of dollars. Council found it hard to accept that the redesigned program’s outcome would be to increase costs for some recreation clubs, while significantly cutting costs for yacht clubs where having the wealth to buy a pleasure boat is a standard feature for many members. You can see a complete list of which organizations would pay more and which would pay less in the staff report’s appendices here.

Since this is a challenging budget year and implementing the proposed changes will require additional funds, Council opted to defer implementation until 2024. Council also directed staff to take a second look at the organizations in Schedule C to see if any changes or subcategories would help alleviate the somewhat problematic outcomes.

Damage from Snow Clearing
Council had a lively discussion about snow and ice clearing and just who is responsible when damage is done to private property. The situation right now is that when a contractor breaks something, they’re responsible for fixing it. The municipality doesn’t take on any liability or responsibility. This doesn’t sit well with me because snow clearing is a core municipal service. The contractors are there because HRM hired them to be there to do our work. Whether it’s contracted out or done in house shouldn’t matter to residents, but it unfortunately does.

Currently, if your property is damaged by a contractor, any follow-up complaints after the initial 311 call will be through the contractor. HRM will informally engage with a contractor at times, but, technically, the municipality has no responsibility or role in any damage a contractor might do. HRM requires contractors to have insurance and complete repairs by June each year, which is really about protecting municipal property. HRM doesn’t track or follow up to ensure that damage done to private property is resolved or is handled reasonably. Basically, unless a resident is contacting HRM repeatedly to complain about the contractor’s response to their claim, there is no municipal follow up.

My observation is that contractors generally do a good job, but there have been times where more complicated repairs have gone well past the June deadline. In those instances, it can be very frustrating for residents when HRM’s response is to deny any role in the matter. I asked for options on how to fix that, and the response from staff is there are none. Legally we can’t take on responsibility for damage done by contractors and there are some good reasons why we shouldn’t (if a contractor knew HRM would be the one fixing things, they might be more lax in avoiding damage since it wouldn’t cost them anything). That we probably can’t change. The report, however, was very underwhelming in how HRM could improve the interface between resident, municipality and contractor, which is something that I think could be improved. It should be a warm hand-off to the contractor. There should be follow-up. HRM’s response shouldn’t be to shrug off responsibility. It’s our service, it’s our responsibility. With no ready options, it’s something I’m going to have to take away to work on some more before the next contracts come up for renewal.


  • Registered 5812/5814 North Street, 6221 Coburg Road, and the St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Hammonds Plains as heritage properties
  • Assigned the management agreement for Cole Harbour Place to the Cole Habour Recreation Society (Society is changing its name from Community Builders Inc)
  • Rescinded Council’s December decision to defer changes to HRM’s planning bylaws to regulate short-term rentals. That will come to Council next week for a public hearing
  • Approved a new agreement with Halifax Water to base their annual payment to HRM (the dividend) on a payment in lieu of taxes system like exists for federal and provincial properties
  • Approved HRM participating in the next round of federal Rapid Housing projects
  • First reading for changes to on street parking permits
  • Received a presentation on the North American Indigenous Games
  • Set the terms of reference for a review of HRM’s Sold Waste Strategy
  • Approved declaring a portion of Park West School Park in Clayton Park as surplus in order to sell the land to the Province for the construction of a new school
  • Initiated a planning process to potentially allow for single unit housing development on existing lots in Wrights Cove that currently have no development rights due to the proximity of the Gypsum Terminal
  • Approved the addition of several rural projects to HRM’s Active Transportation Priorities Plan and an area rate approach to help cover the cost and reflect that the existing rural tax rate doesn’t include active transportation
  • Requested a staff report on a potential multi-purpose building at Gorsebrook Park (sparked by the Halifax Rugby Football Club), establishing consistent park zoning in the suburban and rural areas, potentially, acquiring 5812-14 North Street for community use, and changing the terms of reference for the African Descent Advisory Committee and the Women’s Advisory Committee to allow for appointment of Councillors who are not part of the Executive Committee


  1. Contractors do an excellent job on the sidewalks its the street plow putting more snow on the sidewalks to gain a total of 5 cms of street width that baffles me (The street is already cleared enough . This extra snow makes the sidewalk plow operator and homeowners unnecessary extra work , This plus the truck based plow goes around with plow up to spread salt . It would save HRM money if they plow and salt at the sametime . talk about a waste of money

    • Agree Victor, just finished my walk on Alderney in front of the condos and the sidewalk has been plowed but since that happened the street snowplow deposited a whole bunch of snow on the sidewalk for no apparent reason. I saw one poor senior threading her way through the snow piles.

  2. With respect to the Rental Registry; nothing is free. There is a cost to the tax payer somewhere to administer the program. To say that there are bad landlords is a valid statement. But for every bad land lord there are 10 bad tenants. Who is advocating for the landlords?

    • I hear what you’re saying, but that there are some rotten tenants out there isn’t really the point. HRM doesn’t do residential tenancies. That’s provincial and where tenant issues reside. What we’re tasked with in our responsibilities is minimum standards and the building code and we don’t fulfill those responsibilities through tenants, those are fulfilled by landlords. A lot of the feedback from landlords on this has been about frustrations with tenants and the rent cap, none of which is HRM.

  3. Now that I gave you and the rest of council the details of the additional $119 million that HRM taxpayers poured into the very generous and very expensive HRM pension plan over the past 13 years( the details which were never previously disclosed to council) have you and your colleagues received the briefing note that the Mayor asked for (after he was quite startled by my presentation of the facts) ? Details matter but apparently you and other councillors were quite happy to waive the audited financial statements through on a consent motion last year and thus making history being the first year that HRM audited financial statements have not been discussed by council. The HRM pension plan is the most generous and most expensive in Canada ( I have reviewed such pension plans across the country). In December 2019 the Going Concern deficit of the HRM pension plan was $180 million and in Dec 2021 it was down to $17.5 million. The greatest deficit was in 2012 when it was a few dollars under $214 million. Not to mention the Retirement Allowance, aka Long Service Awards, being another unfunded liability in the amount of $81.5 million. City Hall needs a good dose of financial discipline – I won’t hold my breath.

    • Hi Colin. I’m not saying this to be obtuse, but other than “the pension plan is expensive” I’m not sure what your point is. It is a set expense and is what it is. It can’t be changed without agreement of the unions, agreement that when pension reform was attempted in the past was never there. The cost of the plan also raises costs for employees since contribution rates come from salaries, but unless the unions decide that they would support forgoing some of the plan’s benefit to reduce contribution rates than nothing much will change here. It’s like police salaries, we have no real control. Haven’t seen a memo yet, but that timeline isn’t unusual.

      • The expense for this calendar year should be much less than 2022. You, and every other member of council received my one sheet explaining costs at a recent budget meeting. The sheet shows that in calendar year 2022 the special payments were a little over $16 million shared 50/50 between employer and employees. The sheet shows the payment for calendar year 2023 as $240,000 shared 50/50 between employer and employees. And that is a saving to taxpayers of $8,000,000 in this year. If you did not understand the information that I presented you should have asked a question. Contribution rates in 2004 were 8.56% for both employer and employees. It became 12.21% in 2016. Next time you read the HRM financial statements read the footnotes and ask questions instead of just waving it through as though financial statements were just too much trouble to understand. Look at your recent pay stub and compare the percent deducted for the pension contributions with the percent deducted in a December 2022 pay stub and then you should notice the lower rate. It isn’t rocket science.

        • Okay sure, but again, what is your actual practical point? If it’s not budgeted for, it’s not $8,000,000 just sitting under a mattress waiting for you to find it. If we don’t need a special payment this year, great that’s one less pressure off, but it doesn’t change that all the other pressure is there because of everything else going on in the world and in HRM.

          • You don’t know what you don’t know. The staff, especially the CFO and the solicitor know the truth, as does the CAO, but they don’t want to put details in a public document. The CFO or the CAO could have said the significant cost reduction is already in the budget but they did not say a word until the Mayor suggested a briefing note. Your lack of concern and lack of interest about financial details in the amount of millions is astounding and irresponsible. A significant amount of the pressure is self inflicted. It is concerning that you never rebutted the statement from Councillor Cleary that an expenditure on sidewalk renewals is not a capital expenditure and should remain in the operating budget. Some of the capital from operating should be removed from the operating budget and financed by debt.

  4. Looking through the video of the Feb 15 Budget I cannot understand the status of the sidewalk clearing and all heard was one councillor complaining about the salt

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