Halifax Regional Council’s committee of the whole rounded out this week’s budget talks by approving a list of capital projects that are far along enough in the planning process that shovels could break ground asap. (Or could be brought to that point relatively quickly.)
This comes in the middle of back-and-forth discussions about which projects and services can be cut from the municipality’s budget in light of steep revenue drops thanks to COVID-19, and in anticipation of some form of funding from the provincial and federal governments similar to programs that came out after the 2008/9 economic crash.
The list, which included Alderney Gate library and Dartmouth North Community Centre renovations and transit infrastructure at Robie and Young streets, was built based on those projects closest to being ready to go to tender (all government projects are “tendered,” meaning the ideal end job is posted, and companies can bid against each other to “win” the contract. Usually the job is awarded to the lowest bidder who still guarantees to meet all the requirements), as well as projects likely to qualify for funding support based on past programs (AKA green initiatives and infrastructure, but not things like IT.)
The COVID-19 recast budget that came back to council this month had cut $53 million (about a 17 percent reduction) in capital spending planned for this year. Some cuts were easy—staff say that they likely wouldn’t have gotten to those projects this year anyway; some were cautious—the possibility that materials could be held up by COVID’s effect on the supply chain; and some were strategic—because there’s not enough money to get everything done in a good year, let alone in a pandemic year.
A huge chunk of savings from the capital projects budget is the deferral of the Cogswell project. Council heard on Thursday this week that the initially projected Fall 2020 date for demolition will be pushed back. (We’re taking bets on when Cogswell will actually crack off—a project planned for perpetuity.)
CAO Jacques Dubé stressed that time is of the essence with the shovel-ready list, telling councillors and mayor Mike Savage the fact HRM had been asked to submit a list of projects is a good sign.
The budget committee approved the shovel-ready list. It will return on Tuesday, May 26, to discuss what should be a recast-recast budget that follows Councillor Waye Mason’s amendment from last week asking for a “parking lot” of things that council wants spared from this year’s belt-tightening—and some riskier options from staff on how to pay for all of it.
If you’re still tuned in to this slog of a process know that the juicy bits—watching councillors go to bat (or not) over their favourite projects and services—should get going with next week’s "parking lot" release, as councillors push staff to spend some of the rainy day reserves so they don’t have to tell residents that once more their splash pad project is being postponed, or about the cuts to grant funding that keeps arts organizations alive or jobs that won't be filled as units experience higher demand.