The urban forest master plan’s parking lot expense for tree planting and pruning could get $200,000
O n Friday, council will decide how it's going to pay for the grocery list of parked expenses approved for next fiscal year. At the last budget meeting, council hacked the list of $7,118,400 parking lot items almost in half, approving $3,704,100 worth of additional department expenses.
The parking lot process, which aims to help council make better budget decisions, gives departments the opportunity to put a face on the money they've been tasked with cutting, making the parking lot a list of "this is what you'll have to do without" in order to make council's desired 1.9 percent tax bill increase. Items ranged from partnerships with Volta labs, snow maintenance for the elderly, Arts Halifax funding, money for rural transit, library jobs and snacks.
The almost $4 million in approved items mean residents could be looking at a 2.3 percent tax bill increase—technically a 0.3 percent decrease, as the property value increase this year was 2.6 percent. But council wants to see if they can keep the resulting $43.83 increase on the average home tax bill of $1,979 even lower, by using surplus money to cover some of the approved expenses.
Extra surplus money this year comes from a couple more extra-large property sales than anticipated, meaning the city gets a bigger hunk of cash for the land changing hands. Councillor Sam Austin says that using surplus money to pay for something that's going to be a recurring expense—like library salaries—is a bad one. "In a household budget, it would be the equivalent of using your savings to pay for your groceries," he says. "Eventually, when your savings run out you still have to buy groceries."
Last meeting, council went through the list one-by-one, approving $350,000 for library staff but not $50,000 for library snacks. Adding firefighters in Fall River for $363,000, keeping a partnership with Volta Labs for $125,000, $100,000 for the senior snow program and over $600,000 for transit improvements in line with the Moving Forward Together Plan.
Also approved, but from a different pot of money, is a $1 million one-time capital contribution to the new YMCA on the peninsula, which councillor Waye Mason calls a bargain. "This is the MDF [Multi-District Facility] for 70,0000 people who live on the peninsula and we're getting it for a little bit less than a million bucks."
Some items were approved but at a lower cost, like tree planting which got cut down from $400,000 to $200,000. Accessible taxi trip supplements for $500,000 and $200,000 to subsidize police checks for volunteers didn't get approval. Items on the list often won or lost just by one vote in the majority rules system.
At the end of the day, says Austin, "it's council putting the stamp on what we want to fund and what we don't want to fund."
The point of the parking lot is to facilitate fiscal responsibility. Councillor Bill Karsten argued that councillors shouldn't be making decisions around cutting staff positions, asking that if they don't approve the funding, could the department still find the money "by hook or by crook?"
Debate about changes in the process aside, this year the councillors were given the parking lot list in a "handy" spreadsheet. An improvement on previous years, says Austin, when it used to be crammed into PDF format.
Bruce Fisher, manager of financial policy and planning for HRM says it boils down to somebody having to make a value judgement. "You sit there and say, do we want to do it or not? And so that's kind of their job," says Fisher.
Once council decides if it'll spend surplus money on Friday, the final budget will go back to council, likely on April 16 as the surplus vote pushed the schedule back.