Confused council passes HRM budget with climate tax and carbon subsidies | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Confused council passes HRM budget with climate tax and carbon subsidies

Free parking is the real tragedy of the commons.

Weird meeting of HRM council this week, and not just because councillors had to do three meetings in one. The politically weird bit of Tuesday’s meeting is the fact that councillors are unwilling to commit to the actions that will enable their stated goals. We’re talking about parking. This parking debate is long and requires a lot of explanation to fully understand council’s mistake, but it’s worth it—and that will happen at the end of this piece. Why not at the top when it’s clearly the most interesting thing going? It’s so you have to at least skim over everything else council passed at yesterday’s Frankenstein meeting.

The cobbled-together agenda is another thing that made the meeting weird. Council did a meeting of the committee of the whole, followed by a budget committee meeting, followed by a city council meeting. Why did they have to do that? Because council passes things that come to it from committees, and there are some committees that are made up of all the same people who are on council, but the committees themselves are responsible for different, more specialized policy work than the normal council meetings. On Tuesday, it was the budget committee (which does budget stuff) and the committee of the whole (council) which weighs in on stuff that affects the whole HRM but that doesn’t fit into another committee’s area of responsibility.

Things that passed

Policing may change in the HRM in the future. This report was first requested by councillor Tony Mancini because he was drawn to the seeming inefficiency of the HRM’s dual police services. This report found that policing in the HRM sucks for a lot of reasons, notably that the two police forces in the HRM don’t work together, and the board of police commissioners is also bad at their job of oversight. This report has been sent to the board on its journey into becoming law, and what it does for the city (if anything) will be determined by the board of police commissioners, which is now chaired by RCMP superfan Becky Kent. The board is next up to determine whether the city will become a better place to live or if this report will join the long line of police reforms and municipal plans that are written, passed and never implemented, like the Green Network Plan. Or the Integrated Mobility Plan. Or climate change, if you keep reading. You know, it’s probably best to start tempering expectations.

The city has a budget! The average tax bill is going up by $125 and the city’s budget clocks in at $1.17 billion ($1,171,610,100). It’s been a pretty interesting season, and you can read all about it here. This is a fun budget because it includes a tax for HalifACT, the city’s fund to fight climate change. But at the last minute, councillors decided to stick it to their past selves—from the ancient days of just over a month ago—and voted to add a fossil fuel subsidy to the budget aswell. Essentially, since councillors waited until the last minute to make liars of themselves for declaring a climate emergency, the city’s accountants had already added the revenue for Saturday parking to the budget. Since council pulled a last-minute U-turn on that policy, the expected revenues need to be covered in the budget. And that means instead of just drivers paying for parking on Saturdays, we are now all paying for parking through this year’s property taxes. If you’re happy with this, you’re supporting local. If you’re unhappy with this, it’s probably because policies like this really undercut the belief that we have any sort of individual agency to prevent climate change.

Tax relief for non-profits passed after being deferred in February. Eligible charities will be able to claim up to $25,000 in property tax relief. This deferral came because council wanted to be able to do more for smaller charities, and be generally more inclusive, and these changes do that. For information on how to apply, call 311.

The Snowbirds are flying above Halifax on Canada Day, and COVE wants to drop a scuba diver into the harbour from a helicopter on June 14. Both of those fly-past requests were approved.

The 4-Pad in Bedford is up to be renamed again. Formerly the BMO Centre, that contract expired and now the city is reselling the naming rights to the Bed-4-d-Pad.

Councillor Tim Outhit wants to crack down on illegal parking. The city wants to increase the fines for parking tickets on second and third offences, but the province hasn’t given the city the power to do that. HRM staff, in getting creative, found a way to make parking tickets have tiered fines within the existing legislation. Staff estimates this change will net the city a total of $350,000 annually (delayed five years) between the street and pay station parking tickets.

The city is going to consider selling 9 Spring Street to the Nova Scotia Salmon Association.

Sometimes in municipal politics, council decides to change its priorities, and when it does, it sometimes changes the bylaws to match. In this case, the HRM decided to remove seniors housing as a land use. Several developers had applications in for a land use that no longer existed, which put them in a weird legal limbo, so council rammed through some shared housing legislation to make sure developers could keep building the seniors housing that was no longer allowed. But since that legislation was passed without proper due diligence, council has had to fix some mistakes in the shared housing land use bylaws, which it passed Tuesday.

Halifax is raising development fees in the new budget for the first time since amalgamation. But new budgets require bylaw updates to match, and those passed this week. For developers, the new fees can be found on Page 3 of this report.

City Hall has a room called the Downie Wenjack Legacy Room. It’s a room dedicated to displaying Indigenous art in City Hall. The city wants this room to continue existing, so it committed $5,000 a year for the next five years to make sure it sticks around.

Hammonds Plains Road and Lucasville Road’s intersections are going to get improvements. The report reads: The Transportation Standing Committee recommends that Halifax Regional Council direct the Chief Administrative Officer to:

1. Prioritize short-term operational improvements to the signalized intersection, including upgrades to the traffic controller cabinet and vehicle detection, along with updated signal timing plans; and

2. Ensure appropriate, longer-term intersection modifications, including accommodation of pedestrians, cyclists, and transit, are appropriately planned for through the development review process.

Council’s short-term priority is making the city better for cars, and the long-term goal is to make it better for everyone. More than other policies, council priorities are clearly laid out here. This city makes the planning decision that, since more cars use this intersection, cars are the priority. City council could also decide that since one person in a car hitting one person not in a car is often fatal, fixing that should be the priority. Adopting the Integrated Mobility Plan suggests council’s priority is the latter. Council's declaration of a climate emergency suggests council’s priority should be the latter. Councillor for the area Pam Lovelace’s constant advocacy for pedestrian safety suggests the latter would be council’s priority. If we are serious about the Integrated Mobility Plan, climate change or pedestrian safety, driving needs to suck a bit more than it does today to incentivize other forms of travel. And yet, cars win. Again. And we lose. Again.

Councillor Lovelace wants it to be harder for foreign governments to mess with Halifax’s municipal elections. Prudent piece of legislation to have on the books, even if it will hopefully never need to be used.

Mayor Mike Savage and his colleagues have thrown decorum out the window (AKA they skipped a bureaucratic step in formal letter writing). This is a super technical, inside baseball procedural thing, but the takeaway for the average person is that Canadian cities are organizing, trying to band together and leverage their collective power to make the federal government and various provincial governments do something, anything, to prevent the currently unchecked poverty crisis in Canada that is causing more and more people to end up unhoused. Canadian cities are legislatively the least capable of dealing with unhoused populations, but since the Nova Scotia government recently committed to making the unhoused population larger, our city council is becoming increasingly desperate.

The way the city does public engagement is changing. The way the city does public engagement sucks, and they know it, so they are developing a strategy to fix it. People of Halifax have an expectation that when they are asked for input in city policy, they will be listened to and considered in the resulting decision by their municipal government. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are a lot of issues; in some public hearings people who own land are the only people who are technically and legally allowed to address council. And there are accessibility issues (getting to meetings), and the fact that public input is usually right at the end of the planning process where the public’s input couldn’t be listened to, even if the city wanted to listen. Councillor Paul Russell deserves some credit on this one. The original draft of this motion used the wishy-washy language of “may.” As in, the city may implement this public engagement strategy. Russell said that was not good enough and passed a motion to make sure the city shall implement this public engagement strategy.

And finally, 6112 Coburn is set to become a heritage building.

Notable debates

Before we get to parking, there was an interesting debate about policing. The new policing strategy that passed aims to fix the problem of Halifax’s two police forces. Mainly that we have two police forces that don’t work together. And the RCMP, even though it polices the HRM, is not in any way, shape or form accountable to the city’s government. And if it’s not accountable to the city government, that means it’s not accountable to us. Although we know the RCMP isn’t accountable to us. Three years ago, a man dressed like them killed 22 of us. They kept us in the dark. That made us so mad, scared us so badly, that we spent millions of dollars finding out how exactly the “always get their man” Mounties screwed up so badly. Years of time, millions of dollars and unquantifiable trauma went into this report. It’s very important to us. And yet they somehow thought it was acceptable to show up to the press conference without having even read the report? They consistently demonstrate that they are not accountable to us, so they should not be policing us.

Anyway, council wants the police who police the city to be accountable to the city. As described above, the RCMP are not. The HRP is accountable to the city on paper, but to making that accountability complete would require council to be able to give direction to the HRP. The good news on that front is that Councillor Waye Mason and a policy wonk The Coast tapped to analyze the Police Act believe the act gives council the power to direct police policy.

(There’s a TL:DR after the block of legal jargon, I’m just showing my work)

Essentially the argument goes like this: In the Police Act it says “On behalf of the board, the board chair or the chair’s delegate may give advice or direction, in writing, to the chief officer on any matter within the jurisdiction of the board under this Act (52)” and then defines the board’s jurisdiction as “the board has sole jurisdiction over the matters so delegated to it. (3) Without limiting the generality of subsection (1), a board shall (a) determine, in consultation with the chief officer, priorities, objectives and goals respecting police services in the community; (b) ensure the chief officer establishes programs and strategies to implement the priorities, objectives and goals respecting police services.” And the board’s legislative reason for existing in the act are defined as follows: “(3) Without limiting the generality of subsection (1), a board shall (a) determine, in consultation with the chief officer, priorities, objectives and goals respecting police services in the community; (b) ensure the chief officer establishes programs and strategies to implement the priorities, objectives and goals respecting police services; (c) ensure that community needs and values are reflected in policing priorities, objectives, goals, programs and strategies; (d) ensure that police services are delivered in a manner consistent with community values, needs and expectations; (e) act as a conduit between the community and the police service providers; (f) recommend policies, administrative and organizational direction for the effective management of the police department; (g) review with the chief officer information provided by the chief officer respecting complaints and internal discipline; (h) ensure a strategic plan and business plan is in place; And (i) ensure the department is managed by the chief officer according to best practices and operates effectively and efficiently.

In a straight reading of the legislation, the board of police commissioners is supposed to consult with the community (us, democracy and all that) to assess our needs and values. Then they are supposed to make sure our needs and values are reflected in policing in consultation with the chief of police. Then they are supposed to direct the chief’s policies to ensure we are being policed in line with our needs and values. This is why it seems like the board of police commissioners is not doing their job because, arguably, they are not.

However, city lawyer John Traves has a different view of the legislation. In the comment section of that story he writes: “In any debate there is often disagreement and differences of opinion expressed but, as was the case at the Board meeting on January 30th, the matter is then put to a vote and the majority decides the issue despite the views of the minority. This is the nature of the democratic process. The majority of the Board was satisfied the Budget is consistent with the Act - their vote (passing the Budget) documents this decision which is, when all is said and done, their decision to make whether everyone agrees with it or not.”

Meaning, even if they didn’t read the budget because it wasn’t made available to them, technically speaking just having a vote is the legal requirement for the word “ensure” in the Police Act.

Editor’s note: This, by the way, would be the crux of the legal debate between The Coast and the HRM in a suit against the city—but pursuing a lawsuit against the city would limit The Coast’s ability to cover the police in the HRM. The new public safety strategy and this piece of legislation working their way through council, combined with a veritable crapshoot of possible outcomes, helped us make the ultimate decision to not pursue the suit.

Anyway, Traves told council that while yes, technically, the law might define the board’s role in that way, the Marshall decisions take away the power of the Police Act, so his hands are tied. Instead of expecting council test the power it has under the Police Act and just give the police direction, the safe bet is to expect a staff report that will come back after the next municipal election that will eventually lead to nothing.

And now, parking!

The parking debate is deceptively complex, so it’s hard to know where to begin. Essentially, small downtown businesses are hurting. Hurting real bad. The first blow came with COVID. Brick-and-mortar stores usually need physical customers to stay in business, and if everyone is locked in their houses for a few months, then there are no customers. Even though the pandemic restrictions have lifted, downtown businesses are still struggling. And that desperate economic outlook led them to come out and lobby against paid weekend parking.

Their argument goes like this: Times are tight, and people need free parking to spend money at their businesses. There is no evidence to support that; it’s based on a survey of downtown businesses’ perception of where their money comes from. That may not be true, it’s just what businesses owners surveyed very strongly believe. The belief that paid parking might make things worse is the pressure to which council succumbed. This was a policy decision not based on facts, not based on evidence, but one instead based solely on yet-to-be-proven business owners’ perceptions of who their customers are.

Because the research says there is no evidence to suggest free parking is good for cities in any way, shape or form. At all.

But there is research to say that climate change is real. Not only real, but it’s also about to be really bad. Council knows this—that’s why it’s implementing things like the Integrated Mobility Plan, HalifACT, the Green Network Plan, etc. It’s why the city is reviewing how it designs suburbs (which are also bad). It’s why council talks extensively about complete communities, strong communities, walkable communities, etc. But what’s been missing from the debate so far is: What happens between right now and our complete communities?

Because the reality is, there will be losers. And those losers will likely be small businesses, and it’s probably, mostly, due to factors outside of their control. The fact that no one has money to spend anymore because wages aren’t going up, but grocery bills are, which means we have discount soup at home instead of eating out. Or the fact that gas is so expensive we have to save our driving for profitable activities like working instead of fun ones like eating out (or ordering takeout). Or landlords using legislation loopholes to jack up rent so they can keep up with their spiking mortgage payments.

Ignoring that, there’s also the hurdle of municipal planning implementation, which sucks (this is a really good thread for the Twitter-inclined). Because while it’s true that having pedestrian streets, or pedestrian access to small businesses is a net positive,

that is only true if the implementation isn't half-assed. Where business owners can feel rightly hard done by is if the city takes away the parking in front of their store, builds a half-assed bike lane and leaves, promising to finish the rest of the network sometime in the next three to 45 years.

And the reason the city’s implementation sucks is because the city is always broke. And why is the city always broke? Mainly because we have historically funded and continue to fund and subsidize unsustainable infrastructure, like car infrastructure and unsustainable services like free parking, both of which cost the city a lot more money than they bring in.

Free parking is the real tragedy of the commons. In a tangible way, we have given up free communal spaces in exchange for free individual spaces. The pattern of making this trade over and over again is what is killing this planet, and even though our politicians talk a big game, they never put their money where their mouth is. Even if that money is only a buck an hour on Saturdays.

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.
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