Budget season kicked off Tuesday in Halifax Regional Municipality with an introduction to the budget’s strategic priorities. This step seems like a very high-level wishy-washy process with very little tangible impact, and it’s not an incorrect assumption to make. However these high-level discussions have a very real impact on how the city’s money (AKA your tax dollars) gets spent. For the municipal politics super nerds, today’s budget meeting was a lot like how normal people treat sports pre-seasons.
Tuesday’s budget meeting, broadly speaking outlines municipal budgeting priorities. The thing we care about the most in the city (according to the HRM’s survey) is public safety. But what does public safety mean? Better COVID protection? More police? Reducing poverty? Safer street infrastructure? These debates about the minutia of the language used in planning gives everyone an idea of what to expect from council this budget season.
Back to sports for a sec, this year’s budget process is looking a lot like hockey’s Ottawa Senators in the summer. A lot of good moves and good plans, but some holes in the lineup that can impact the long-term success of the team. Both the Senators and Halifax have a big obstacle in their path: lack of defensive depth and the deed transfer tax drying up as a revenue stream, respectively.
And as a friendly reminder, COP27 just ended. This conference used to be to prevent or mitigate global heating, but is now an oil industry trade show. Halifax declared a climate emergency, and we are in a climate emergency. There are just over 9,900 days until 2050. And according to a UN report from October: "Policies currently in place with no additional action are projected to result in global warming of 2.8°C over the twenty-first century. Implementation of unconditional and conditional NDC scenarios reduce this to 2.6°C and 2.4°C respectively.” This article will reflect the fact that climate change is an emergency our politicians are not adequately dealing with.
Things that passed
Sam Austin is now deputy mayor for the next year and has a parking spot at City Hall for the next year. It comes with a parking spot because the elites of the city can’t afford to rely on Halifax Transit. Oh snap, a planning burn.
The Broad Street roundabout is moving forward. This project was initially put on hold because the councillor for the area, Tim Outhit, wanted a plan that wouldn’t shut down traffic for a few weeks on Larry Uteck Road. Councillor Pam Lovelace told council that there was massive economic anxiety among businesses in the area. With this project, public tax dollars are subsidizing private businesses and investing in fossil fuel-based transportation infrastructure. Work can’t be done at night because the noise and bright lights would inconvenience local residents. This planning change has bumped the project's cost up by $250,000 and will cost a (for now) maximum of $6,204,287. The construction will take a few weeks longer, and a city account for Dartmouth improvements is being tapped for a $2,465,715 loan to Bedford to complete the work. Deputy mayor Sam Austin was previously assured by city staff that this money will be paid back to Dartmouth. Austin and Shawn Cleary were the only two councillors to vote against spending more money because 200 people in Bedford wrote an email (more on this below).
1102 Purcell's Cove Road will now be a heritage property. The former powder magazine that had served as a church until the 1920s was replaced with an actual church in 1929. This church is fairly unique as it’s in the “Spanish Mission” style. This passed unanimously.
Councillor Cleary brought forward the Strategic Road Safety Plan 2022 report to council as an information report, to highlight the good things the city has done. For example, last year, the city built just over one kilometre of protected bike lanes.
The ground of the Halifax Common is super contaminated. How contaminated? The city doesn’t know; initial testing revealed a lot of contamination, which requires more soil testing. The testing budget was increased by $30,000 to $89,281 to find out how badly things like the Halifax Explosion have contaminated the soil of the Common.
The city will be spending $42,000,000—that’s 42 million dollars—on planet-killing oil to heat city-owned buildings over the next three years. The city can extend the contract for two additional years for $28 million. In other words, the Irvings can expect an average of $14 million per year in public money over the next five years.
Phase 2 of the free Student Transit Pass Pilot progam was passed today. Phase 2 was supposed to include more high schools, but staff instead recommended that the junior high schools in the family of the two initial pilot schools (Woodlawn High and Dartmouth High) should be the additions for the second phase. The cost of implementing Phase 2 is $310,000 and the Halifax Regional Centre for Education is kicking in $200,000 of that money. Should the full program be funded at some point, it would cost about $1.2 million annually. The cost to include students at Conseil scolaire acadien provincial schools is negligible because most of them take school buses or cars. The reason most CSAP students don’t (or can’t) take public transit is that CSAP seems to plan its school locations by throwing three darts at a map of Halifax and picking the worst location of the three.
Council is changing up its board and committee rosters. The Halifax Water Commission will see Kathy Deagle Gammon and Becky Kent join until 2023, when they are replaced by their council colleagues Patty Cuttell and Pam Lovelace. Councillor Toni Mancini is allowed to join his Dartmouthian counterpart Sam Austin on Alderney Landing’s board of directors. And some other councillors remain in positions required by their role as district councillors.
The city gave the CAO’s office official power to spend money that council has approved. The changes are expected to save the city up to three weeks on the procurement process.
Being drunk in public is now no longer automatically criminal behaviour. The city is doing a three-year pilot program on sobering centres. People who are too drunk to remain in public will (in the near future, if the province doesn’t reneg on its promise for money) be diverted to a sobering centre, where drunk people can get sober without being put in a cage, only to be hit on by cops while also not getting blankets or water. There is also far less of a risk of being negligently killed by police in a sobering centre as well. This much-needed change to public safety is going to cost the city $139,215 in the first year and $490,768 each year for years two and three. The province is picking up the other half of the tab. One of the challenges identified by the report is that there is currently no place to have a sobering centre, which might be a bit of an issue. This project is expected to divert approximately 2,000 emergency healthcare visits or unnecessary jailings per year. Councillor Trish Purdy, who earlier in the meeting implied she didn’t let her teenage kids take the bus alone because it’s too dangerous, voted against this public safety measure along with Paul Russell and Pam Lovelace. Luckily those three were the only votes against it, and public safety wins the day.
Upper Hammonds Plains land-use bylaws are getting reworked. The very short version is that Upper Hammonds Plains is expanding. Still, since the land is zoned for basically anything except overtly polluting (General Use - 1), the community is concerned industry will move in—as industry has been—and affordable housing won’t be built. Without housing, they fear their community would eventually erode away to nothing. This change, if it passes as is, means that some land will be protected for single-family homes (AKA zoned R-1, Single Family Dwelling). This passed first reading, but may change drastically before becoming the zone of the land, if it becomes the zone of the land at all.
The HRM is asking the province for permission to make our streets safer. The city is asking for permission to lower speeds on residential streets, which should make it harder for pickup trucks to turn toddlers and the elderly into gooey red smears on the pavement. The province, which is currently beefing with the city, can (and historically has) said no (or ignored the city’s requests, which is still saying no to street safety, but with fewer bad headlines). This passed, so the mayor will write a letter that the province, hopefully, will not ignore.
The city considered making a committee of unhoused people to guide the city’s bureaucracy in dealing with our unhoused neighbours. However, the researchers the city got for this report found that the city’s plans, policies and bureaucracy around the unhoused are such a fustercluck that unless the city got its shit together, it would be “difficult, perhaps even unethical, to ask people to engage in community development committees and processes when they are unsheltered, hungry, and in a state of constant fear for their safety.” Which makes sense; it would be quite unethical to ask people to stop their daily rituals of survival to talk to city planners. Especially if the committee work will ultimately be ignored in three to five years after millions are spent on consulting, planning and design fees. Instead, this multi-year make-work project ultimately concluded the city should continue doing what it’s doing, but like much better. Rivetting stuff.
The Macdonald Bridge bike collectors need a bit more money to be designed. The 2017 design is being redesigned to make it safer and better; the new design cost is $666,267, up $198,784 from the last projection. The design is slated for completion in 2024, and the delays are due mostly to mission creep. The headline news from this report is that the city is so bad at planning bike infrastructure that city staff just straight missed $6 million worth of costs. This bike lane, which started in 2017 will be delayed until 2024 and will now cost over $12 million. It would be a lot cheaper to just make one of the car lanes a protected bike lane and call it a day, which is the type of infrastructure activists have been calling for since 2017. Council is now just starting to do infrastructure like that in 2022. Councillor David Hendsbee wanted to kill this bike lane because it’s too expensive. Killing the planet is much more expensive; between the province and the city, about $1 billion of public money is spent annually on road paving for cars. This passed with Hendsbee and Purdy voting no.
Mission creep (noun): The gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization.
The mayor is writing a letter to the province asking for Community Benefit Agreements. CBAs are formal, legally-binding agreements that lay out what a community will receive for being impacted by development. This letter is being written because city council believes (with a lot of supporting evidence) that premier Tim Houston’s Conservatives care more about developers than people who live in developments. Since this letter asks Houston to take accountability for his decision making, his lackey, municipal affairs and housing minister John Lohr, will likely ignore it.
The city is changing who it can or will invest in. The city of Halifax may invest in the following organizations: The federal government, the business development bank, the CMHC, the Canadian Wheat Board, Export Development Canada and the Farm Credit Corporation. Halifax can also invest in the provinces of Alberta, Ontario, BC, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, and the city of Calgary. It can invest in the banks BMO, RBC, Nova Scotia, TD, National Bank of Canada and CIBC. The Quebec bank Desjardins was cut. Also cut was the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, which somehow lost $3.3 billion when everyone else was making money. Hey, did you know that banks made a lot of money by pumping up the housing bubble? Good thing the city passed this new investment strategy which incentivizes banks to make housing more unaffordable.
Community gardens have become increasingly popular as climate change creates food shortages and corporate greed makes groceries more expensive. This is why council passed legislation to make it easier and more streamlined for community gardens to be created, maintained and insured.
The optimism-crushing HalifACT 2021-22 progress report was delivered to council. It’s underwhelming. The city has taken some first steps, and hey, fair enough, it is only year two. Hopefully, climate change will also wait for bureaucratic timetables before wreaking (more) havoc on our lives.
Council finally passed the bylaw amendments that officially allow electronic payments. Meaning at some point Soon™, Halifax will finally be able to pay for the bus with an app if the bus is running. Halifax Transit still schedules brutal shifts for bus drivers, so a lot of them are burning out hard.
Two years and two months after the Board of Police Commissioners set out to tackle defunding the police, a committee was almost formed at council. The proposed committee will review the report on defunding the police and tell the BOPC how these recommendations could be implemented. The board, in theory, then makes those recommendations to council. Or it doesn’t. The Board of Police Commissioners only meets once every month, and a third of its meetings are devoted to reports from the police that give the board no relevant or actionable information. Expect any progress on the working group’s recommendations to be slow if the BOPC doesn’t outright ignore the recommendations. However, since this came to council without a staff report, it got sent away until it comes back with a staff report.
Councillor Russell wants the Auditor General’s term to be 10 years. This would mean both provincial and municipal AGs would have the same term. The mayor will be sending a letter to the province asking for the change.
Deputy mayor Austin wants a staff report on the feasibility of a boardwalk in downtown Dartmouth and wants to clean up zombie laws around pawn shops.
Councillor Lovelace wants to fine developers who are sloppy and/or lazy with road closures.
And finally, mayor Savage wants “to develop a strategy to attract, house and retain skilled talent required to address our economy’s acute labour shortages, with a focus on skilled tradespeople and labourers needed by the construction industry for housing construction.” This passed. However, any municipal strategy that requires provincial labour code changes (which this one likely should) might be a bit of a struggle.
One of the more interesting debates came from councillor Outhit during the budget part of the meeting, and it was really more of a statement. Outhit rightly pointed out that if council listens to us the citizens, and our more immediate complaints, then the city will forever be unable to achieve its long-term goals. It’s not a secret, for example, that the city is paying more and more for paving with fewer and fewer roads being paved, but Outhit says that’s not what people are mad about. They’re mad that the Macdonald Bridge cycling flyover lane went from $6 million to $12 million and everyone in government seems to be fine with the fleecing. Outhit says council needs to be better at communicating that if we want council to save the planet, then they need to spend less money on roads. Like you, municipal budgets are facing the pinch. And if councillors decide to spend our money on fixing potholes, then we are dooming ourselves to a climate apocalypse.
There was a large debate about the roundabout going up in Bedford. Councillors deferred this because the construction was initially planned to close Broad Street for a few weeks. However, 200 people wrote emails to city council saying this was a bad idea. Councillor Pam Lovelace agreed, telling council that businesses that had just opened would be impacted by the street closure. So council decided to subsidize private businesses by keeping the roads open during construction, adding delays, and passing along those extra costs to the taxpayers. The cost of the roundabout is now $250,000 more, totalling $6,204,287. Each NIMBY-esque email complaining about the construction closures required to build this piece of fossil fuel infrastructure cost the city $1,250.
Tim Outhit put more points on the board late in the meeting when he blasted the Board of Police Commissioners in the debate about the board asking for a subcommittee on defunding. He said quite explicitly that the work the BOPC wants to assign to this subcommittee should be the only thing the board is doing with their time for the next few years. Outhit told the board (paraphrased): “This work is your job, your whole job; just do your fucking job and get this motion out of here.” And he’s right. The BOPC, in trying to make this subcommittee, is abdicating its responsibility to the people of Halifax. Councillor Waye Mason also correctly pointed out the board legally has power over the RCMP as per the Police Act. It’s power the commissioners are currently not using (they seem to be allergic to using their power). He argued that the city will need to be involved in defunding the police, like with the sobering centres, and this committee could be that link.