Agenda, January 10
Stormwater Right-of-Way Charge
HRM is changing how the stormwater right-of-way charge is paid. The stormwater right-of-way charge has a long and complex history. First thing to know is there are two stormwater charges. One is specific to property and that’s on the Halifax Water bill. The second is to recoup the money that HRM has to pay Halifax Water for the cost of managing stormwater on roads and sidewalks. That second charge also appears on the Halifax Water bill even though it has no relation to individual properties.
When the Utility and Review Board ruled that HRM had to pay the stormwater right-of-way charge back in 2014, it came as a surprise. In that first year, HRM paid the $4,000,000 cost out of general revenue before shifting the expense onto the Halifax Water bill as a flat fee. Recovering this expense through the water bill caused lots of confusion as people understandably asked why they were getting charged twice for stormwater. In response, HRM moved the charge to the tax bill as a flat fee, which caused a whole bunch of new problems. Halifax Water customers have just one account for their property, but condo owners often have separately deeded parking and storage spaces, which meant that they ended up paying the fee multiple times and, since it was a flat fee, the low value of parking spaces and storage lockers wasn’t taken into account. It caused a lot of understandable outrage and so in 2017 Council moved the fee back to the water bill where it has been ever since.
Putting the cost of managing stormwater for roads and sidewalks on the water bill is problematic because it’s not a Halifax Water customer specific item. It’s a cost for the public good of having roads and sidewalks that has no relation to specific properties. How we usually pay for public goods is through the general tax rate. Raising the money for the stormwater right-of-way charge through a flat fee on the water bill is also problematic because it means that high value properties pay less while low value properties pay more. The crossover point when I worked it out in 2017 was around $320,000.
I opposed charging the stormwater fee on the water bill as a flat fee, but the Council of the day just wanted the whole issue to go away and I was in the minority. The old saying that time heals all wounds has proven true though. With some changes around the Council table and the benefit of time taking the heat off this issue, Councillor Lovelace convinced Council to take another look at it. The result is HRM is scrapping the fee on the Halifax Water bill and will instead recover this cost as an area rate applied to HRM’s stormwater service area. I would have preferred the general rate, but an area rate on the stormwater service area is the next best thing.
So what it means is that, this year, the stormwater charge will vanish from your Halifax Water bill, but a new area rate will appear on your tax bill. Whether you pay more or less than before will depend on your assessment. This expense will now be grounded in fundamental principles around progressive taxation and how we pay for the public good.
The topic of transit taxation was also before Council as we considered how to best allocate the $124,000,000 costs of running the service. Currently, Transit has two major sources of revenue: fares and taxes. Fare revenue brought in $23,000,000 in 2021 and HRM was hoping that would be largely back to pre-COVID numbers ($32,000,000) this year. The rest of transit’s funding comes from taxes in the form of two area rates, and the general rate.
The first area rate is the Local Area Rate, which applies to any residential property that is within walking distance of a bus stop (1 kilometre). The second is the Regional Area Rate which applies to all residential properties in the HRM commuter shed, which includes everyone except parts of the Eastern Shore and Musquodoboit Valley. The Local Rate ($0.099 per $100 of assessment) brought in $33,000,000 in 2021 while the Regional Rate ($0.047 per $100 of assessment) totalled $20,000,000. Since District 5 has abundant transit access, everyone here pays both the Local and Regional rate while out in the more rural sections of HRM, many people pay the Regional rate, but not the Local rate.
The idea behind having a Local and Regional rate was to charge folks who have direct access to transit more for the cost of the service while also recognizing that transit is a public good that has benefits to folks who live farther away, or who might still use the service even if they live more than a kilometre from a stop (park and rides, getting dropped off at a stop, etc). Where the idea breaks down is that the Regional rate creates expectations around access for folks living in low-density rural areas where conventional transit will simply never be viable. The “I’m paying for it, but I don’t have access to it” argument.
The answer to the objection of paying for something but not getting it is of course that transit is a public good. All of us help pay for things that we don’t directly benefit from. That’s how living together works. The public good argument, however, is undermined by the fact that HRM pays for all the other public goods via general taxation. There is no special area rate for library services, planning, parks, police, fire, garbage collection etc. Everything else is paid for via the general tax rate, and, the same is actually partially true for transit since fares and the two area rates don’t cover the entire cost. In 2021, general taxation covered $45,000,000 of transit’s budget (expected to decrease to $34,000,000 this year as fare revenue recovers). So in 2021 (still a recovery from COVID year), the breakdown was:
Staff recommend that Council leave the status quo as is, but Council wasn’t satisfied with that recommendation. What we asked for instead was a supplemental report to look at specifically combing the Regional rate into the Local and general rates. This seems like a good idea to me as the Regional rate is mostly justifiable as public good and that aspect is already inherently captured in the general rate. I’m not convinced that being able to park at a park and ride in Fall River or Timberlea makes a dedicated Regional Rate, particularly on fare service, justifiable. It makes more sense to me to capture the general good for transit in the general rate and then charge a single area rate for local service. What the percentage split is though between general and local rate will be an interesting point to consider and whether commercial properties should contribute to the area rate (area rates currently only apply to residential so commercial contribution to transit is only in the general tax rate). Staff will return in future with a report on the idea.
Brunswick Street Complete Street
Some big changes are coming to Brunswick Street in Halifax. Brunswick will be getting a dedicated bidirectional bikelane, new street trees, and wider sidewalks. The goal is to make the street more attractive for active transportation and to improve the public realm around Citadel Hill, one of our most prominent tourist attractions. This will be done by taking over road space on the west side of Brunswick and reducing the street to two lanes. There will be some impacts on parking (59 spaces), but it’s important to remember that this is very much a Downtown location. There are over 1,700 parking spaces just a block away from much of the Downtown section of Brunswick in Scotia Square and there is additional off-street parking at the other end at the Doyle. HRM is looking at making changes to the street through tactical measures like bollards and curbs before construction, possibly in 2027.
- Held a public hearing to rezone a former youth camp property in Bayside
- Held a public hearing to require more intensive development in Upper Hammonds Plains to proceed via development agreement
- Appointed several building officials
- Requested a staff report to coincide with budget deliberations on providing the Police Commission with a lawyer that is separate from HRM
- Requested staff reports on revising the order of business for community council and standing committees to ensure public participation occurs before regular business, and on setting publicly available timelines and performance indicators for planning applications
- Approved allowing several councillors to use $7,000 in district capital funds to help finance a behind the scenes visual project on City Hall