E-News COVID Updates #9

With the recent decline in cases in Nova Scotia and the slow and cautious lifting of restrictions, it does feel like we’re entering a new phase of the COVID crisis. While the news has been improving, it’s important that we not get complacent. COVID isn’t gone. We need to continue to wash our hands, keep our distance, stay home if you’re sick in any way, and follow the advice of Public Health. This has been a challenging and stressful time. Be kind, and patient with each other. We’re all in this together.

Here’s the latest HRM COVID news from District 5:

Parking Fees Returning:
With declines in COVID cases in Nova Scotia and the slow and cautious easing of restrictions underway, free parking in HRM is coming to an end. As of June 1, payment via meters or HotSpot will be required for metered spaces and enforcement will resume. Enforcement will also resume for non-meter infractions including overstaying time restrictions (1 and 2 hour spaces etc), and parking in loading zones. Enforcement for accessible spaces, and tow away zones was never suspended during COVID and will continue. Residential parking permits that expire in March – June will continue to be valid until HRM’s Customer Service Centres reopen, but permit zones will be enforced, so don’t park in a permit zone unless your permit allows you to do so.

Budget:
This past week has been a very busy one at Council as we reviewed the revised budget. You might recall that the 2020 budget was basically finished, and was just awaiting formal ratification before COVID-19 hit. The pre-COVID draft was a politician’s dream: the tax rate was low, no new debt, and new capital/program spending in key areas. It was as close to having it all as you get. COVID took that dream and turned it into a nightmare. HRM is instead faced with a pretty much unprecedented collapse in revenue, creating the toughest budget environment since at least 2008, maybe since 1929. It’s hard to find a parallel for an estimated $44,000,000 in revenue disappearing almost overnight! The lost revenue comes from a number of sources, the most significant of which is transit fares ($20,000,000).

If the revenue loss wasn’t bad enough, HRM also has a potential cash flow problem since it’s likely that some people and businesses will be late in paying their taxes. This is a different financial problem than the lost revenue since most late taxes will eventually be paid, but the delay could mean that HRM finds itself with lots of money on the books, but an empty bank account. To get over the expected cash flow gap, HRM intends to take advantage of the recently announced provincial low-interest municipal loan program and borrow up to $188 million at 1.1% (more recent projection is we’ll need $130 million).

While the Provincial loan program is helpful for managing the cash flow aspect of the crisis, it doesn’t help at all in dealing with the actual lost revenue. Since the Provincial loans have to be repaid in just three years, staff recommend beginning repayment in 2020 to minimize the impact on the 2021 budget. Repaying $31,400,000 in 2020 helps HRM avoid being stuck having to come up with an even larger sum in 2021. HRM is also budgeting for potentially $10,000,000 in taxes that the municipality will just never recoup. The combination of immediate lost revenues ($44,000,000), aggressive debt repayment to preserve options in case 2021 is even worse than 2020 ($31,400,000), and potentially lost taxes ($10,000,000) gets us to the total budget gap of $85,400,000. That’s a huge sum for HRM, particularly the $54,000,000 that we expect to never get back, and it’s simply not something that the municipality can just absorb without impacts. Raising taxes significantly when many households and businesses are struggling is a non-starter, which leaves debt, savings (aka reserves), and cuts as HRM’s only options. The staff recommendation focuses on cuts, with some drawing on reserves.

On the reductions list, is $25,000,000 capital from operating. This represents the main hit on HRM’s reserves. HRM tries to pay for some capital spending (approximately $40,000,000 a year) on a pay-as-you-go basis, but that would be cut in half in 2020, meaning that money would have to come from reserves and some new debt. Capital spending has also been cut overall by $100 million, with about half that reduction being projects that won’t proceed for now, while the other half are projects that HRM will aim to tender, but not initiate until 2021 to help manage any cash flow crunch.

So that’s the budget situation and staff’s recommended approach. Over the last week though Council has heard all the messy details around leaving vacancies unfilled and reducing programs. Reductions in policing, and the fire department attracted a fair bit of attention, but there are other noteworthy cuts to direct services such as senior snow removal, heritage grant incentives, the new lake water monitoring program, tree planting, and weekly green bin pickup. The budget primarily focuses on reducing costs on the internal side, which sounds good in theory (cut travel, training etc), but it leaves me with concerns about the vacancy management portion of the budget.

There is always some churn and a time lag in filling positions. The original 2020 budget planned for $8,000,000 in savings from vacancies, which has now more than doubled to $22,000,000. It’s impossible to freeze hiring and leave positions empty without having some impact on the quality of service and HRM’s ability to deliver on its priorities. Whether it’s not having the usual compliment of gardeners and maintenance staff in Parks and Rec, to the operations staff in Transportation and Public Work who do minor street repairs and empty trash cans, to our planners who evaluate development, to our engineers that do the design work for future road and active transportation projects, to community police officers who handle the softer side of policing, doing more with less eventually just means doing less.

Council has started a budget options list and is looking at alternatives that would lessen the impact of the proposed cuts, but the trade-off would mean taking on a higher level of financial risk in future years. Staff’s concern is 2021 could be even more challenging, which means that if HRM isn’t conservative in 2020, the 2021 budget will be even harder. The flip side though is what if 2021 doesn’t turn out so bad, or what if meaningful financial aid from the federal and provincial governments becomes available? The flip side risk of being overly conservative now is that we needlessly set back operations that takes a longtime to ramp back up. What too if infrastructure money starts to flow, but HRM doesn’t have the capacity to leverage those dollars because we don’t have the staff to get projects shovel-ready? No easy choices at City Hall right now. I expect Council will revise the COVID draft budget, but make no mistake, the revised budget will still be a lean one. We’re talking orders of magnitude here around how much risk HRM is willing to take, not a wholesale change of direction.

The one saving grace for municipalities could be the assistance from the federal or provincial government. Municipalities aren’t like the other orders of government in that our tax base is much more limited and we can’t carry deficits. The financial crunch at the municipal level can’t be easily absorbed and paid back over a long period of time the way the feds and provinces can. As challenging as it is for HRM, we’re in better shape than many other towns and cities across Canada because HRM went into this crisis with low debt levels and money in the bank. The same isn’t true everywhere and the most financially strapped municipalities are going to feel the financial impact of COVID acutely. Without aid, it’s going to be lean years for municipalities which will ultimately affect how well Canada does in recovering economically. If there ends up being federal or provincial infrastructure spending, it won’t mean a whole lot if municipalities can’t afford to come up with their share or if they cut services to try and take advantage of infrastructure funding. Hopefully meaningful aid, not just low interest loans, will be forthcoming as we all work through what COVID’s financial impact means.

City Hall budget deliberations resume this week on Tuesday. The goal is to have a 2020 budget in place for early June.

Photo: HRM

Waste:
How we deal with our waste has also been affected by COVID. HRM’s Household Special Waste Program has been suspended. All of the mobile drop-offs for things like old paint, and batteries are cancelled, including the originally planned June 13 drop-off at Mic Mac Mall. The municipal budget isn’t final, but the revised COVID draft doesn’t include any resumption of the mobile drop-offs in 2020. HRM is planning to reopen the Household Special Waste Depot in Bayers Lake in October so, unfortunately, it seems likely that for the next few months, you’ll need to continue storing your household special waste at home.

If short-term storage isn’t desirable and you’re just dying to get rid of some hazardous materials, there are still some alternative options available. Paint and empty paint cans can be dropped off at Enviro Depot locations. You can find an Enviro Depot near you by visiting the Divert NS website here. Some service stations will take used oil, filters, antifreeze, and empty containers. See the Used Oil Management Association site for locations. There are also options for cell phones and batteries (see Call2Recycle), and some pharmacies will take unused or expired medication for disposal.

Beyond household special waste, HRM has also scrapped this year’s Curbside Giveaway. The Curbside Giveaway event would normally take place on June 6 and 7 and it’s fairly popular. That popularity is why HRM has cancelled the event since it encourages non-essential travel. Many of the charitable organizations that accept reusable items have also temporarily suspended operations so, like household waste, short-term storage of reusable items if you have the space is the best option.

Still with waste, while HRM’s budget isn’t finalized yet, Council has voted to reduce green bin service this summer in the urban and suburban areas from weekly to biweekly pick-up. I’m not expecting that will change given the tight timeline to provide notice to the companies that do the pick-up. This wasn’t a cut anyone wanted to make, but with a budget shortfall in the tens of millions, some service reductions are inevitable. Reducing green bin service is very noticeable, but manageable since bins are rarely full and, in my own experience anyway, stink regardless of whether it’s emptied every week or not. Not something that anyone wanted to cut, but $1.1 million isn’t an insignificant savings and, as outlined in the budget section above, HRM is facing some considerable financial challenges. Nothing but hard choices where Council’s challenge is to try and pick the least bad option. Letting go of weekly green cart pickup is one of those least bad options.

Birch Cove on Lake Banook, . Photo Sabrina Gardiner

Beaches:
Just over a week ago, the Province removed one of the last restrictions on access to green space with the announcement that beaches would reopen. Playgrounds are still closed and activities, including many organized sports, are still prohibited under the restrictions on gatherings, but you can now go for a walk on the beach. This creates a new challenge for HRM. HRM wasn’t intending on staffing lifeguards this summer, but with beaches opening after all, that really needs to happen. I’m concerned that if HRM doesn’t have lifeguards at the supervised beaches, there could be an increase in drownings this summer. It’s an essential service.

I asked Parks and Rec about lifeguards during their budget presentation and the director indicated that, since Parks has been on the front-line of the evolving situation around COVID, the department has set aside some cash to deal with the unexpected. So from a budget perspective, paying for lifeguards shouldn’t be an issue, even in these challenging financial times. What could be challenging for HRM is to actually staff the positions. Normal certification programs aren’t possible right now, and there was already a shortage of lifeguards before COVID hit. I’m hopeful that HRM will be able to launch its regular program, but there is a real risk this year around staffing that could make it challenging to maintain regular supervision and hours.

Municipal Elections:
Most municipalities in Nova Scotia, including HRM, are part of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM). In the early days of the COVID crisis back on April 7, NSFM requested the Province delay the upcoming municipal election. The reason for this unusual request is it could be very difficult for municipalities that rely on enumeration to gather a voters list, it could be hard to operate polling stations with public health restrictions, and it’s a complete unknown what actual campaigning will look like in the time of COVID. I’m sorry to report that the Province has rejected NSFM’s request, which means election day is a go for October 17 as originally planned.

I understand that delaying an election is a significant decision, but in this case, I wish the Province had acted on NSFM’s request. I’m not worried about HRM’s capacity to run an election given that we use the federal and provincial voters list for enumeration, and have electronic voting options. What I’m not confident in is that we’ll be able to have a fair election given that it’s going to be really difficult for candidates to actually campaign. Municipal council races tend to attract little media interest – what coverage exists tends to focus on the mayoral races – and with no political parties, there are no shortcuts for voters to quickly figure out what each candidate stands for. In municipal politics, voters really are choosing an individual, which means they need to know something about the people running. Social media and direct mail helps with that, but there is really no substitute for the doorstep.

If door-to-door campaigning isn’t possible this fall, either because people aren’t keen to have strangers knocking on their front door, or due to public health restrictions, it will be very difficult for candidates to actually connect with voters. This is especially true for challengers and candidates in open seats who typically don’t have a lot of name recognition or money for direct mail or social media ad buys. It is going to be difficult and more expensive than usual, and that burden will fall disproportionately on first-time candidates who already face long odds in taking on an incumbent.

I wish the Province had opted to change the date to the spring. A few extra months wouldn’t make a big difference in the scale of a 4 year term, but it could make a big difference in the quality of the election debate and engagement with the public.

You can check out who is already registered to run this fall on HRM’s website here. Registration is open until September. I haven’t registered yet, but will be reoffering in District 5.

Dartmouth North Assessment Centre Closed:
The Dartmouth North COVID Assessment Centre has closed. The Centre closed because Nova Scotia doesn’t have any active community clusters of COVID right now. Hopefully Public Health won’t need to reopen it!

Life in the Time of COVID:
Local adaptation to COVID continues. The Zatzman Sportsplex is closed, but our fitness needs haven’t gone away. It’s even more important since many of us are spending even more time at home. The Sportsplex has been offering free online exercise classes that you can do at home over Facebook. Coming up this week, a 45 minute equipment free strength training, high intensity interval training, and beginners yoga. For more information and participate visit the Sportsplex Facebook page here.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you Sam. I appreciate these regular and informative updates, particularly with all of the current uncertainty.

  2. You have been such a good councillor keeping us well informed. Thanks. This is such a difficult time for everyone. Personal budgets are as difficult as political ones. We will just have to accept less and do more when we can to help out. Thanks for your good work

  3. Subject: Transit woes!

    Good Tuesday afternoon Councillor Austin: I have a focused request.

    I take transit whenever I can (for reasons enunciated at the end below). But of late, it has become a marathon problem in catching a bus although I live off a major roadway, Portland St., in Dartmouth. I am aware Covid-19 is the main reason -plus- the severe loss in revenue.

    Several times, buses do not stop since the capacity is low and are getting filled very quickly most probably because of the sunny season. This did not happen until mid-May or so. I am unsure if the Director of the HRM Transit is aware of this.

    I am hoping you can discuss this with the Transit Authority at the Regional Council ASAP. I realise the present blocking of many seats has to continue.

    But it would be preferable if the former schedule is restored rather than follow the Saturday schedule during weekdays as well.

    The union rep for the transit drivers had stated last month on FM 95.7 something to the effect that everyone pay $1 in the fare box, wear masks, and that drivers be protected with plexiglass. That would also free up more seats. He made great sense to me since I have been wearing `medical masks’ going back to even mid-March.

    REASONS WHY I AM AN ARDENT SUPPORTER OF TRANSIT:–

    As a `practicing environmentalist’, I gave up my car way back in 1998, and even gave up my driver’s license in 2019 so that I am not tempted to purchase a car. There is a host of peer reviewed scientific literature re the negative impacts of even small autos on not only climate change but also on lake water quality, the latter from polluted stormwater runoff (we have some proof on that).

    My international scientific team had already made several detailed submissions on this alone dating back to the original HRM Regional Plan.

    Thank you and sorry for any typos/grammar.

    • Hi Shalom. I’ll ask Transit about overloading on the Portland corridor. They do track when a driver has to start to skip stops and have redeployed buses as needed during COVID to address (put more articulated buses on the Pleasant corridor after the first round of service adjustments). The lack of passengers is only part of the reason why the schedule was adjusted. The other part of it is that we simply haven’t had the staff to run a full schedule. Not all the drivers feel safe working and the extra cleaning needed combined with absences makes it challenging to get the fleet ready during the night. Even if we were collecting fares right now, it wouldn’t really matter as with well over 80% of the ridership gone, the revenue collapse would still remain. Transit is looking to install shields to physically separate drivers from passengers, which would allow the resumption of front door boarding and fare collection. Blocking off every second seat will likely remain the practice for a while so it’ll be sometime before anything looks normal on transit. As noted, I will inquire about the Portland corridor.

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