E-News COVID Updates #11

It’s been another rough few weeks, something that has been all too common in 2020. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is an absolute tragedy. This grave injustice has put policing under the microscope across North America. This newsletter is focussed on COVID service changes, but Council has been getting a lot of feedback on policing, so I have published my thoughts in a separate post. You can read it on my website here.

As we’ve started to enter into the reopening phase of COVID-19, transit is starting to increase service. As of today (Monday, June 8), the Alderney Ferry is back to a full-day 30 minute service and limited hours are back on the weekend. Here’s the new schedule:

  • 30 minute service from 6:30 am to 10:00 pm
  • 30 minute service on weekends from 10:30 am to 8:00 pm
  • No change to the Woodside ferry at this time, service remains at 30 minutes during peak hours only on weekdays

In addition to the schedule change, ferry capacity has increased from 25 passengers per trip to 40. Capacity on the buses has also recently increased as HRM is once again allowing standing for up to five passengers at a time. HRM will be scaling the bus service up from its current 63% of normal operations to approximately 84% of normal later this month on June 22. I will share the details on what that means in terms of route schedules when it’s available (either this week or next). Fare collection is still suspended and transit is encouraging everyone to wear masks.

If you’ve had a something on hold for a while at the Library, you could receive a note in the next little while letting you know that it’s available for pickup. The Library is still closed, but they’re working on a curbside pickup service. The service is currently being piloted at the Woodlawn and Sheet Harbour branches. The Library intends to expand curbside pickup to other branches in the weeks ahead.

In terms of other services, the Library is offering Ask the Library for questions that you might normally have asked a librarian at a branch. The number to talk to a librarian is 902-490-5753 or you can reach out via email at AskLib@halifax.ca. The Library is also offering virtual programming, which you can check out on the Library’s website here. The Library’s collection of e-books and other electronic resources, of course, remains available to borrow.

With the Province reopening beaches, summer at our lakes is back on. The biggest risk to HRM’s summer programming right now though is not having the staff for all the municipality’s supervised beaches. The Province is hiring extra lifeguards, certification programs have been disrupted, and not everyone who would normally work as a lifeguard is interested in doing so during COVID times.

So, if you have the training, (National Lifeguard Service Award, First Aid, CPR, certified NLS Waterfront, Certified AED), I would strongly encourage you to apply. Applications are being accepted until June 15. You can apply online here. If you don’t have lifeguard training, but know someone who does, please pass the ad on. I’m hoping we don’t have unsupervised beaches due to lack of staff.

The Sportsplex has submitted their reopening plan to the Province of Nova Scotia for approval. Once the Sportsplex plans are approved, it will still take time to bring back staff and get the facility ready to operate again. As such, there is no reopening date just yet. The Sportsplex has indicated that when they do reopen, it will be a very different experience than the one we’re familiar with. It’s likely that in the early stages of reopening, access will be by booking a time slot, and hours will be much more limited. Parts of the facility will be unavailable and activities that draw a crowd, such as open gym and public swims, will be unavailable. The pricing structure will be adjusted to reflect the decreased service. More details on the reopening of the Sportsplex to come.

Photo: Tennis Nova Scotia

The Province and Nova Scotia’s various sports organizations are preparing plans on how sports will be played during COVID-19. Each sports governing body is entering into or preparing a “return to play” agreement with the Province. While plans to resume play are under review, HRM’s facilities are available for limited use. For soccer and baseball, fields can be booked for practice as long as there are no more than 10 people and physical distancing is maintained. Basketball courts are open for use by individuals, households, and household bubbles. Courts aren’t open for pick-up games between people who aren’t part of the same bubble. Tennis can be played as singles. No doubles!

For more details on specific sports, please consult the relevant Provincial Sports Organization or Sports Nova Scotia.

Council has basically finished our recast 2020 budget. Completing a municipal budget is usually done over the course of three months, but this year we had to redo it all in just three weeks because of the hole that COVID-19 punched in all the revenue assumptions.

To quickly recap, HRM is out $54.0 million from various sources (transit fares, deed transfer tax, lost interest, tax losses, cancelled parks and rec programming etc). HRM also has short-term cash flow challenge created by tax revenue that won’t be received on time, but will be paid eventually. The latest from Finance is that 17% of the tax bill is outstanding as of June 1, which is a big increase from a typical billing period where just 2% – 3% is late. Commercial revenue is down by 23%, and residential by 13%.

To get over the cash flow crunch created by late taxes, HRM intends to take out a low-interest loan from the Province of $130 million. The Provincial loan isn’t free money and has to be repaid in three years. Having to start repaying the loan puts an additional $22.1 million in pressure on the 2020 budget.

The end result of losses and managing the new debt is a revised budget gap of $76.1 million. Council doesn’t want to raise the tax bill more than the previously planned 1.5% (tax rate wouldn’t change, increase would be on the assessment side), which means we’re left with cuts and savings as our only options to balance the budget. HRM does have savings, but they’re not unlimited and we don’t know how long the lean years will last. There is just no prudent way to close the $76.1 gap without cuts.

Council never accepts the default staff budget without some changes and the revised budget was no different. We ended up with several items on our wish list, but instead of new stuff, this wish list was almost entirely a list of services we wanted to spare. Council ended up adding the following:

Reduced vacancy management by half (how long a position is left empty, excluding police and fire which were dealt with separately)$5,632,675
Seasonal employees (Parks and Rec, Transportation and Public Works)$315,000
Summer Rec Programs$500,000
Community Grants$150,000
Museum Grants$110,000
Barring Street Heritage Tax Incentives$245,000
Integrated Mobility Plan Studies$290,000
Beach Water Testing$80,000
Water Quality Monitoring Program$150,000
Heritage Incentive Grants$200,000
Heritage Planner$80,000
Discover Halifax$300,000
Events Grants$100,000
Rural Transit$50,000
Hand Shovelling (Snow Removal)$225,000
Senior Snow Removal Program$600,000
Climate Change Plan (Halifact) staff (3)$137,000
Downtown Dartmouth Renewal (Sawmill River/Dartmouth Cove)$2,000,000
Councillors District Capital (1/2 the usual amount)-$750,000
Fire Station 2 Replacement-$1,600,000
National Association of City Transportation Officials Membership$16,300
Fire Department (station closures cancelled and needed firefighters in Sheet Harbour)$1,886,900
Police Department (staff vacancies reduced from 28 to 12)$2,014,000

It looks like a big list, but even with Council adding back $12.7 million it’s important to keep in mind that this is still a very scaled down budget. It’s just that instead of the originally projected $85 million reduction, we’re looking at reducing by $73 million. It’s still a very conservative budget that recognizes the crisis we find ourselves in.

So how do we pay for adding back $12.7 million? Not needing to borrow quite as much as originally planned ($130 million versus $180 million) with a resulting reduction in how much we need to put aside for debt repayment frees up $9.3 million. The rest will come from the 2019 surplus.

I’m pleased with where Council has landed. I’m very happy to see not just beach water testing, but the long awaited return of the lake water monitoring program in the budget. Cancelling the senior snow removal program would have created some real hardship and it really doesn’t make sense to delay on hiring three staff in the planning department to start work on enacting HRM’s Climate Change Plan (HalifACT). Climate Change is a clear threat to human civilization and although our collective focus has been on COVID and policing, it hasn’t gone away. We’re still hurtling towards disaster and all governments, including HRM, have to do their part. Easing up slightly (we cut the target in half) on vacancy management and restoring some of the seasonal hires in Parks and Rec and Transportation and Public Works also makes sense. Vacancy management is the sort of cut that would have shown up all over the place in HRM with unpredictable results since it’s not immediately known what positions will end up being left vacant, it’s just a target that each department would have to hit as they manage the usual churn of people that happens in any large organization. At a certain point though, you just end up doing less with less and I’m convinced doubling the vacancy management in HRM would have impacted on the level of service we receive and HRM’s ability to deliver on projects.

The addition that I’m particularly happy with though, is funding for land acquisition for the Sawmill River/Dartmouth Cove project. When it’s built, the Sawmill River/Dartmouth Cove project will be transformational for Downtown Dartmouth in opening up development opportunities, improving active transportation connections, restoring the environment and creating new public spaces. The HRM funding will help get the project to shovel-ready status, allowing us to potentially tap into federal and provincial infrastructure/stimulus programs.

My only disappointment in the revised budget process was that I narrowly lost trying to restore some of the 2020 tree planting program. Tree planting is normally a $1,000,000 program, but it was completely cut in 2020. I tried to move $250,000 back into the budget just to keep some of the program going rather than losing a whole year, but I lost the vote 8-7. The Urban Forestry Plan is important and something HRM will hopefully be able to resume in 2021.

On Tuesday, Council will vote on ratifying the budget. It’s not final just yet, but it’s close.

On Friday, HRM closed Argyle Street between Blowers and Prince Streets to cars. The closure will be in effect until Sept 29th and is part of the municipality’s mobility response to COVID-19. HRM has already initiated several slow streets where traffic is limited including Dahlia, Chappell, and Slayter in Dartmouth, and expanded sidewalks on Quinpool and Spring Garden. HRM anticipates that there will be further adjustments to the street network in the future and is gathering feedback as to where additional street actions are desired. You can provide suggestions via Shape Your City on an interactive map.