Shirley’s Splash Pad:
The big news over the last few weeks at Council for District 5 is the Friends of the Dartmouth Splash Pad’s success in fundraising for a Splash Pad on the Dartmouth Common. The Friends have secured $140,000 for the Splash Pad project! That’s over 20% of the project budget!
The Dartmouth Splash Pad has been in the works for the last few years. The Friends have carried out a fair bit of community engagement, and suggested three possible sites to HRM. During that time, HRM has also completed an Aquatics Strategy that identified the need for more splash pads, specifically in Dartmouth, Timberlea, and Eastern Passage. A subsequent staff report on the Friends request resulted in Council approving a site for Dartmouth’s first splash pad on the Common next to the playground and skateboard park.
Municipal funding for one of the three new splash pads was almost secured last year. Council voted to include money for one splash pad in the budget, but that never came to fruition due to COVID. When HRM was forced to redraft the 2020 budget, new splash pads were one of the many cuts made to balance the books. The stars appear to be aligning though this year. The draft capital budget has funding for the Dartmouth Pad and thanks to the Friends, the community portion of the fundraising is in place.
The Friends funding is coming partly from the District 5 and 6 capital funds, but the bulk of it ($110,000) is a gift from the family of Shirley Clarke. Clarke was a long-time Dartmouth resident who lived nearby on Thistle Street. She raised five children, all of whom attended the since demolished Park School where the Splash Pad will be built. Clarke passed away in 2020 and her family decided to make a gift to the Dartmouth Splash Pad in her memory. The $110,000 donation means that the Dartmouth project will have extra features that HRM’s budget otherwise wouldn’t pay for.
In honour of the Clarke family’s generosity, Council approved naming the Splash Pad, “Shirley’s Splash Pad.” Assuming all goes well during Council’s budget deliberations, the Dartmouth Splash Pad should be built this year! Many thanks to the Clarke family and all the work that the volunteers at the Friends of the Dartmouth Splash Pad put into making this all possible.
This past summer, HRM tried something new. After a slow start, HRM initiated changes to the street network in response to COVID-19. This included creating extra patio space, notably on Bedford Row, but also a pop-up network of connected Slow Streets. The idea behind Slow Streets was to try and provide more space for people to walk and cycle. These local traffic only streets were mostly streets identified in the Integrated Mobility Plan as forming part of HRM’s future bike network (aka the Minimum Grid). In District 5, Slow Streets were created on Slayter, Pine, Queen, Dahlia, and Irishtown Road.
In reviewing the program, staff identified issues with the light-weight barrels, a lack of equitable distribution, and a lot of staff time to maintain the network. I generally agree with staff’s review. My experience was the program was initially met with enthusiasm, but that enthusiasm waned as time went on. The light-weight barrels that HRM was using were too easily moved. The Slow Streets program basically was enough to irritate some drivers, but not enough of a deterrent to create the desired traffic calming effect. It was sort of caught in between, and wasn’t as useful as it could have been.
If we want to be a municipality that innovates, we need to allow people the space to try new things and then take those lesson and improve upon them. That’s what staff are doing with Slow Streets. Going forward, Slow Streets will return, but with barriers that can’t be easily moved (bollards, curbs, planters etc) to reduce the maintenance burden and improve the traffic calming impact. The 2021 version of Slow Streets will be smaller, and will be spread more equitably. When I know what that means for District 5, I will share in my e-newsletter.
2021 Budget Deliberations
Council’s deep dive into the 2021 draft budget has moved on from the internal administrative departments to public facing services. So far, the Library and Police have presented to Council. Coming up on Wednesday this week, Council will review the capital plan. Here’s where we are with the Library and Police.
It’s hard to find a more beloved municipal service than HRM’s Libraries. Wherever they’re located, our libraries are vital community hubs. They’re one of the few spaces where everyone is welcome at no cost, and they’re very well used. Before COVID, the Library boasted over 20 million visits to its 14 branches, 221,000 attendees at Library programming, and 4,400,000 borrowed items. HRM’s libraries punch well above their weight, drawing more visitors per capita than many other systems across the country. Even with branches closed for significant parts of 2020, visits still stayed above the pre-COVID Canadian benchmark! Libraries are something that we do really well here in HRM.
The Library budget this year is set to increase from $21,700,000 to $23,300,000. Like almost all HRM departments, salary costs are a big part of that. Salary increases account for half of the overall increase. The additional funding in the 2021 draft budget means that the Library’s budget will not only be restored, but will actually exceed pre-COVID levels.
Despite the restoration of the Library’s budget, the system is still facing some challenges. One of the big issues facing libraries right across the country is the publishing industry’s increasingly restrictive approach to electronic editions. The demand for electronic books is steadily increasing, but, unfortunately, many large publishers regard libraries as lost sales. This is despite the fact that actual evidence indicates that people who borrow electronic books end up buying more books as well. Reading begets more reading.
As a result of seeing libraries as competition, the publishing industry charges libraries significantly more to acquire electronic copies and, unlike a hard copy book, many electronic books expiry after a set time period or only allow so many borrows. Distressingly, some titles are being embargoed from libraries when they’re first released and, even worse, they’re sometimes not being made available to libraries at all (looking at you Amazon/Audible). This is becoming a major issue that is driving up the cost of library collections and restricting the public’s access to materials. Some publishers eased restrictions during COVID, but the issue is far from settled. Federal intervention would be welcome here as the tactics of large publishers certainly aren’t serving the public good! Write your MP!
What it means for HRM is there is increasing pressure on the Library’s collection budget, pressure that is compounded by the fact that the collection already had fewer resources per capita than most other systems across the country. Having above average usage, a small collection to begin with, rising costs, and a growing population isn’t a good mix. What it means in practice is that residents in HRM typically wait much longer for popular items than residents in other cities.
Last year I was successful in convincing Council to put forward an extra $250,000 towards the collection, which helped stop it from shrinking even further relative to the population (that the library rapidly redirected funds to buying materials when branches closed was also part of why that levelled off). For HRM to fully fix the library collection’s relatively small size would cost over $6,000,000. Given how lean municipal budgets are, that’s not a figure that we can easily come up with all at once.
This year, the Library proposed $100,000 more towards the collection as an added item. Council approved placing that item on the budget adjustment list, which means that Council will take a look at it again in April once we have had a chance to review all the potential extras from every department. I would have preferred to match last year’s budget increase, but this is a lean year for HRM as we come out of COVID. This is something I will follow up on again in future budgets.
The most contentious item so far in our budget discussions was, unsurprisingly, the police budget. Municipalities across North America have been taking a hard look at the way that policing is handled in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. There is a lot of interest in reallocating resources into community services, which makes a great deal of sense. Tackling the root causes of crime including poverty, addiction, mental health, racism, homelessness, misogyny, etc, will always produce better results than dealing with the impacts of society’s shortcomings later on through policing. We will likely always need some sort of armed force in society, but how we distribute resources and responsibilities is definitely worth looking at. The Police Chief in Dallas summed up the issue well:
Here in HRM, Council has initiated a detailed review of policing to see what areas might be better handled by civilians including mental health, traffic enforcement, and bylaw enforcement. You can check out the full scope of the Council motion from back in August here. There is also work going on at the Police Commission on this question.
Given all of the interest in police reform, how does Council square increasing the police budget in 2021 by $2.3 million? Here’s the thing, HRM’s costs rise each year without any expansion of service. It costs more each year to just keep doing what we’re already doing. A large reason for that is the salaries, which is particularly true with the police department. The police have an Association that negotiates for officers. Police don’t have the right to strike so contracts/disputes are settled through binding arbitration. HRM and the Association were unable to agree on the last contract and the result of arbitration in 2017 was annual increases of 2.75%. Rising salaries total $2.1 million of Halifax Police’s $2.3 million budget increase. Other changes in the police budget are all very minor in comparison. HRM isn’t hiring additional officers, this is the cost of keeping the current services in place while we work out where we’re going in the bigger picture of police reform. As I wrote back in June, I’m open to reallocating funds and rethinking how we provide services, but we need a plan first. That work will be one of the major challenges of this Council’s term.
Council did add three items to the budget adjustment list from the police department: a clerk to enter dispositions ($85,800), a temporary position to look at body cameras ($85,000) and additional training coming out of the Wortley Report ($60,000). Council turned down funding requests to add an online training technician and an additional RCMP officer. Like additional funding for the library collection, the three police budget adjustment options will return to Council in April. Council can’t technically direct how the police spend any dollars, but these are the items that the police have requested additional funding for.
- Scheduled a public hearing for a redevelopment proposal on Dunbrack Street
- Awarded new solid waste hauling contracts
- Endorsed the addition of Shannon Park as new addition to reserve lands for Millbrook
- Initiated the process to work with the Province to situation a new Park West School in Clayton Park
- Held a public hearing to approve planning changes to enable the new Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre shelter on College Street
- Deferred a decision on changes to the temporary sign bylaw to consider a number of issues
- Opted to not expand heritage grant funding for non-profits in favour of instead making potential future improvements to the overall heritage program
- Appointed Councillor Stoddard to the Women’s Adivisory Committee and Councillors Russell and Deagle-Gammon to the Accessibility Advisory Committee
- Increased the budget for the Cathedral Lane sewer separation project
- Requested staff reports on funding the Hubbards streetscape, saving Fleming Cottage at the Dingle Park, and on small business tax relief