Everything you need to know about HRM council’s Aug. 22, 2023 meeting | The Coast Halifax

Everything you need to know about HRM council’s Aug. 22, 2023 meeting

A monster agenda, including some embarrassing moments for Cleary, Russell and Purdy.

Catch up on what happened at city council's Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023 meeting.
Catch up on what happened at city council's Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023 meeting.

Much like passing legislation to regulate short-term rentals, hearing “That Funny Feeling” by Bo Burnham is like a bell that can not be un-rung. Burnham’s song points out aspects of society that are jarring juxtapositions that combine to create an unsettling dissonance that something is fundamentally wrong. In a hard-to-articulate kind of way. Tuesday’s HRM council meeting had similar vibes. It started off with councillor Shawn Cleary trying to derail Airbnb regulations, although he was ruled out-of-order.

Also in this meeting, the owners of a heritage property applied for a permit to renovate the home, and councillor Paul Russell told council that an organization designed to “end homelessness” was omitting the fact that some people wanted to be homeless. Andrew Rankin over at SaltWire has been profiling people who are living in tents around town. He does occasionally find someone on vacation who is sleeping outside to avoid paying for pricey hotels. But the vast majority of people he interviews do not want to be living in a tent.

Politicians like to tell us that the crises we face today are huge Second World War-level events that require bold action and leadership. But during the Second World War, people bought in and rationed so hard there was a noticeable drop in heart disease due to the decrease in consumption of the fats in milk and meat. We built over 4,000 ships in six years. Politicians crafted policies that made that happen because they rose to the challenge of their times.

Meanwhile, at Tuesday’s council meeting, in the middle of the housing crisis and a climate emergency, our city spent hours of staff time putting together a proposal for the aforementioned heritage home renovation. Then our councillors, more than once, approved this renovation. Now people with the skillset to build new housing won’t do that, and instead will go renovate a functional house instead. This is not a fair distillation of the heritage property process, but it is an accurate one. One that exists at the same time as the arguments for remembering our past and maintaining it into the future. The fact that they both exist at the same time creates an unsettling dissonance that creates a…

Oh. There it is again. That funny feeling.

Things that passed

The city has a new report on shared housing in the works. Shared housing is the municipal planning term for a wide range of ways to house multiple people on one plot of land in things other than apartment buildings. These changes to the shared housing strategy replace smaller regional plans and makes municipal planning more uniform throughout the HRM. The city has a bunch of old small regional plans that are still on the books and, even though council passed legislation allowing backyard suites within the HRM, some of those smaller regional plans prevented secondary suites from being built. This happened because staff didn’t notice the conflict in planning strategies, and this is now being corrected. Those corrections are happening right away.

Speaking of secondary suites, council asked for a report from the city about how to develop an incentive program to make people build secondary suites. This will also include a guideline on how to make secondary suites accessible and comply with building codes. Councillor Pam Lovelace also added an amendment to stop renewing grandfathered approvals if they haven’t started development by May 23, 2026.

Something else the city may want to consider is creating a few approved secondary suite templates or blueprints available for contractors to use, or allowing contractors to submit a few secondary suite templates for pre-approval. The city should also consider property tax rebates for people who build and maintain secondary suites on their properties. Do you have any other good ideas? Email your councillor! Or wait for the next public engagement process on this, which is now required again and will be announced shortly.

Cleary asked for an update on the city’s development application performance. Across the board, the city is not meeting its internal targets for how long approvals are taking. The city is in the process of making its minor shame a matter of public record, and is working to fix the issues that are causing delays. Planning staff fielding questions from council about backyard suites told the councillors that backyard suites are often done by people who will only interact with the permitting process once in the building of their suite. Staff has promised to monitor those permits to make sure they aren't being unduly delayed since council has not yet decided to find a way around the permitting process—which it could do by pre-approving accepted backyard suite designs.

Councillor Patty Cuttell wants the city to spend $369,000 to rehabilitate Sir Sandford Fleming’s cottage and turn the first floor into a public space.

The Air Force is going to do a flypast of the Halifax Harbour at 2pm on Sept. 8, 9 and 10 for Fleet Week.

The city passed a sweeping legislative change to make sure land-lease communities are run well for the people who lease land. Land-lease communities (AKA trailer parks) have historically been rife with exploitation as there have been very few rules protecting mobile home owners from the land owners. This legislation aims to make sure people who live in land-lease communities have basic amenities such as clean drinking water, functioning electricity and regular garbage pickup.

Council passed bylaw changes regulating the use of temporary signs. For city dwellers, this mainly applies to election signs. For the rural folks, all of those small business signs advertising cords of wood, dog walking or fresh manure are now regulated through a bylaw. Want to complain about a sign? Now you can call 311. Are you a business that wants to pollute our natural vistas with clever slogans? Register your sign and pay the fee.

It’s going to be cheaper to be a taxi driver now that the city has streamlined the licensing process.

The transit security bylaw will come into effect in the near future. This legislation is trying to fix some issues with Halifax Transit policy that were putting drivers in danger (i.e. making drivers call dispatch instead of 911 in an emergency). On the assumption that the traditional systemic issues with enforcement of punitive behavioral laws can be avoided, this legislation will likely be a net benefit for transit. During the debate, councillor Tim Outhit asked if this local news story was correct about transit drivers not being allowed to call 911 directly. Transit management said drivers are allowed to call 911. Transit union reps attending the council meeting undercut management’s message, indicated to Outhit with sustained head-shaking. Transit union members in the gallery explained to The Coast that if bus drivers are allowed to call 911 they are not taught this. They stressed that throughout their training and in day-to-day operations the message from management is clear: No matter what happens, call dispatch first. It doesn’t matter who is factually right in this case. If employees believe they are not allowed to call 911—even when fearing for their own safety—that is a fundamental failure of Halifax Transit leadership.

Bower’s Construction wants to construct a two-storey office building for itself at 1274 Hammonds Plains Road.

The city is being asked to consider approving a mixed-use residential and commercial development (which is technically three development applications). If approved, these will go up along Bedford Highway between Southgate and Glenmont. This will get a public hearing in the future.

Community council meetings are getting a new agenda template. One of the best ways to influence public policy in the city is at community council meetings. The big issues are that public participation has historically been scheduled at the end of the meetings, after staff reports and votes. Meaning if you showed up to talk about something, the first time you’d get to talk about it was after the vote that you showed up to try and influence. That’s being changed so speakers will go first. The other big thing being fixed in this change is a hangover from COVID. Public participation pre-COVID consisted of showing up and speaking. Since COVID, public meetings have had speakers lists, with members of the public having to sign up a day in advance. Since restrictions on citizens participating in democracy are bad, this is being relaxed and the city is making better guidelines for signing up for virtual meetings.

A group in Fall River is using an area rate to pay its local fire department to install stormwater management. Area rates are a neat tool in the HRM, although they are not without risk. They essentially allow a small community within the HRM to levy a tax against themselves for an improvement to the community. In this case, it’s for improving a firehall and community space. But they have also been used to pave gravel roads and, more recently, East Preston used an area rate for an active transit road. They have been a good tool for the HRM to get improvements into parts of the city that don’t have a tax base dense enough to otherwise support the expenditure on public goods. But, as suburbs become increasingly impoverished due to the high private and public cost of individual automotive transportation and decades of exclusionary zoning, area rates will become a less useful tool as time marches on.

Spring Garden Road is being upgraded again/still. After the road was given a facelift, the public response was underwhelming because so too was the quality of the work. Planters were installed with no plants, bus stops had no shelters and the whole thing just kind of seemed unfinished. So the city will be giving an additional $908,386 to Brycon Construction to finish the job the way it should have been done the first time. This work will not include the physical infrastructure required for the pedestrian-only pilot project, third-time’s-the-charm edition. Staff will come back with a report “pending a re-evaluation of the traffic control measures proposed to regulate a bus-only corridor in this location.” As a reminder, that “re-evaluation” was the transportation standing committee instructing staff to come back with recommendations on which physical infrastructure should be used to block cars but not buses, like the gates Halifax Transit uses at the Burnside terminal.

As discussed in the newsletter (subscribe here) there’s some nerd stuff going down. So put your waders on, because we are going into the weeds to explain one aspect of how Halifax is vulnerable to climate change. Council is considering a motion from the audit and finance committee that has asked council to award an alternative procurement contract to Bell Inc. for the provision of consulting services related to the Permitting, Planning, Licensing and Compliance (PPL&C) Program in the amount of $559,234 (net HST included). The reason this money needs to be spent is that there are two senior business analysts who have built up so much institutional knowledge that replacing them would be far more costly to the city than paying $21,509 per analyst per month of the 13-year contract.

One of the hidden costs of public-private partnership (P3) contracting is the loss of institutional knowledge. When we pay private companies to do our public works, they learn lessons from their mistakes. Those mistakes are things we live with, then pay to correct. Then when their contract expires, or when the initial work needs to be fixed, we pay a premium for the institutional education we paid for in the first P3 contract. This is a self-imposed inflationary premium that an academic paper on governmental procurement calls “shrunken state capacity”, which both makes city building more expensive and makes our municipal bureaucracy institutionally worse at doing city building. That study’s worth a read in its entirety, if you still have your waders on. But one of the best things we can do for climate resilience is build up our governmental capacity to solve the problems of the future instead of always relying on contracting it out to private companies.

Our governments like to talk a big game about treating climate change like a Second World War-evel event, and I think we should. The frontlines in the fight against climate change are in how we (re)build our cities to be more resilient. Right now, that battle is being fought by mercenaries in the form of P3 contracting. If we want to win the fight against this climate emergency, we need a professional standing army. In municipal government, a professional standing army is a competent bureaucracy capable of building public works. And just in case you're wondering how that’s going, right now Halifax Transit can’t even hire mercenaries properly.

Speaking of bureaucracy, the city is changing how it appoints people to boards and committees. Details can be found here.

The city is hiring a naturalization coordinator and applying to become a Bee City. More on this in the notable debates section below.

The Board of Police Commissioners’ logo is changing. Chair of the board Becky Kent’s son did the new logo and was not paid.

Rural transit is being funded to a maximum of $400,000 this fiscal year.

Non-profit property tax relief is being changed to make tax bills more predictable. This change has been working its way through council all summer and will now come into effect for the next fiscal year.

Volunteer search and rescue organizations in Eastern Shore, Halifax and Musquodoboit Harbour are getting their operating grants, initially totalling $141,300, for next fiscal year. Tony Manicini pulled this off the consent agenda in order to beef up the funding by $22,000 and change. Chief financial officer Jerry Blackwood told council it could find that change in the couch. Then the lawyer suggested just amending the amounts. “Highly irregular, but highly appropriate,” quipped mayor Mike Savage. The SAR organizations had initially asked for $3,194 extra, but rules are rules so budgets were adjusted to the allowed amount. Councillor David Hendsbee initially had a seperate motion asking for Sheet Harbour’s volunteer organization to be granted an extension to apply for its funding. Council decided to just roll this all into one motion to up the funding for SAR organizations.

10 Kirk Road is a heritage property, and the owners want to do some renovations.

Councillor Waye Mason is trying to make it so developers can’t knock down a residential building without building permits in place to replace it. There would also be a deterringly high property tax on development lots that stay empty. There are some concerns with drawing the lines around what defines an empty lot that should be taxed more, and this report is going to figure out how to draw those lines.

Are there other mostly vacant lots that could be used better that the city could be punitively taxing?

Probably not.

Mason teamed up with Lovelace to start making our city more resilient to the wildfire aspect of the ongoing climate emergency (more details). This was supported by Hensbee, who tried to do the same thing in 2013 after the fire in Porters Lake.

Mason wants to know how much it would cost to make city, provincial and private street signs be colour-coded so that, after a flood, people know which order of government to contact for repairs (more details). Colour-coded street signs would also help citizens levy complaints or make suggestions to the right order of government in non-emergency times. This is a periodic reminder that democracy is a verb that requires an informed and engaged citizenry. This passed in a close vote, and is simply a report to figure out how much it would cost to do.

Cuttell asked if some of the former Herring Cove treatment plant money could be used to create a playground for William King Elementary School. Education, like housing, is a provincial responsibility. Although the city is regularly expected to kick in to that provincial responsibility with ad hoc funding like this, and roughly $14-15 million in annual funding depending on the year. This is due to a service exchange agreement that has existed in one form or another since 2004.

Deputy mayor Sam Austin wants to see if it’s possible to get Halifax Water fees waived for affordable housing permits.

Councillor Kathryn Morse wants to see if we can get fines raised on owners of pets who attack. The fine is currently $300 and hasn’t been raised since 2015.

And finally, mayor Savage sought to give a grant of $50,000 to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness for its conference in Halifax in November. Russell said that ending homelessness is not going to happen, and wanted to know if this conference can also address the people who “want to be homeless” to address some omissions of their name, specifically the “end homelessness” bit.

Notable debates

There is a housing crisis. There is a climate emergency. The city is currently running full tilt at a fiscal cliff due to decades of exclusionary zoning and prioritizing automotive transportation to the detriment of all other forms of transportation. All of this has led to the HRM having a tax base not dense enough to support the municipal services most of us have come to expect. There is going to have to be a lot of hard work, and hard choices, as we will increasingly have to change how we live.

It was in that context—for 30 excruciating, tedious minutes—that councillors burned daylight and municipal resources to wonder aloud if trying to encourage pollinators to thrive in the middle of a worldwide mass extinction event might be a bad idea because people might not mow their lawns. Councillor Trish Purdy wondered if encouraging pollinators that keep Earth’s life support systems running might be bad for people who are allergic to bees. Councillor Iona Stoddard reminded Purdy that most people who are allergic to Bees carry EpiPens.

Oop, there it is again. That funny feeling.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Fall River Area rate was being used to improve water management.