The Property Valuation Services Corporation gave its annual presentation to council at the Tuesday, Jan. 9 meeting, council’s first meet of this election year 2024. PVSC is the independent arms-length government agency that sets a property’s value so that it can be taxed based on that value. (Assessments are right now arriving in the mail at homes around Halifax. As PVSC briefly touched on at council, the appeals process gives you until Feb 8, 2024 to appeal your latest assessment.) In this presentation, council learned that since graveyards, as well as any other property that isn’t resource, commercial or residential, are considered commercial property.
Even though graveyards are not valuable commercial real estate, and aren't assessed like it, being next to high-value commercial property tends to increase the value of surrounding properties. What’s that they say about death and taxes?
Several years ago, in response to fears that skyrocketing property values in the overheating real estate market could drive property taxes up to the point where people couldn’t afford to stay in a house they’d lived in forever, the province created a program to cap the taxable property value until the house is sold. This year the property tax cap is a double-edged sword for the city. The cap is saving Nova Scotians—including plenty of Haligonians—about $20 billion in property taxes. But that means it’s costing Nova Scotian municipalities about $20 billion in potential revenue, for a program that, although the benefits do extend somewhat to everyone, primarily benefits the rich, especially those who own multiple properties.
Halifax could certainly use its share of $20 billion, as it started this budget season with a $105 million budget shortfall. It has managed to mitigate some of that shortfall by demanding budget cuts from the city government’s various business units. Cutting municipal budgets reduces municipal services, forcing Haligonians to pay more out of pocket to replace those lost services, or simply go without. Capping property taxes is a popular political win, much like keeping the tax rate low. Keeping the tax rate low is the wrong decision for councillors who care about the long-term fiscal health and sustainability of the city.
You can find your assessment here.
And councillor Paul Russell, who announced his cancer diagnosis in November, is taking a leave of absence from all responsibilities until Feb. 14. We here at The Coast wish him a speedy recovery.
Things that passed
Councillor Pam Lovelace wanted 21 Fox Hollow Drive to be taken off the list of surplus properties that were approved for use as affordable housing last council meeting. Because this was brought up last meeting, it required two separate votes to pass—both of which required a two thirds majority. On the first vote council voted yes to allow Lovelace to make her sewer case, but clearly they weren’t convinced because the second vote was a no.
After a short public hearing, Almon Lane (not Almon Street) was shut down. It’ll come back to life as an active transit connection of some kind.
After a very long public hearing which was overwhelmingly in support of the move, and coming at the end of a much longer legislative journey, council passed legislation to stop the infilling of the Northwest Arm.
Councillor Lovelace brought forward an information item that is a summary of the fall provincial legislature sitting. In it, staff highlight the small reasons for optimism and the huge areas of concern Province House has forced upon the HRM. The CAO told council the city is prioritizing the Motor Vehicle Act change requests it has made of the province. Apparently allowing speed cameras in the city is getting some traction from Tim Houston’s Tories. It seems they are more willing to approve things like speed cameras, instead of things like changing the posted speed on city streets to 40km/hr. It should be noted that if the HRM was serious about slower and safer streets, it would build safe, slow streets. Instead, the HRM’s Red Book design bible prioritizes transportation designs that favour the smooth and/or fast flow of cars instead of designs for safe, efficient, sustainable, human mobility.
The fees to close roads for construction were going to go up if this bylaw change had passed today. Instead it got pulled off the consent agenda so councillor Hendsbee could get more information about this legislation, as some of his in East Preston has some questions. This will come back next meeting.
Councillor Cathy Deagle Gammon’s motion to cap councillor salaries came back already and passed.
Halifax is going to renew its membership in the Canadian Capital Cities Organization, and will try to host the 2025 conference.
Allowing concrete pouring to last until 9:30pm (with proper permitting) came back for and passed second reading.
The Rural Recreation Strategy passed and should start being implemented this budget season. This garnered a lot of discussion in council, in which councillors had a lot of questions about their specific local rural areas. Overall the report correctly identifies challenges in rural recreation. Mainly, even though rural residents pay taxes, rural rec programs are volunteer-led, and volunteers are aging and burning out. The other big issue is access to recreation facilities, and access to indoor recreation facilities. The rural parts don’t have a lot of rec centres, and even if they do, they are very hard to get to without a car. This leads to a lot of challenges for rural residents as far as physically accessing recreation is concerned. The two big areas where successful implementation of this plan will be most noticeable for rural readers are: 1) If getting to and from your recreation is possible to safely do without a car at any age. And 2) If your local rec programming stops being volunteer-run, and starts being run by city employees instead. These changes should start coming into effect this budget year.
The “Sharing our Stories: HRM’s Culture and Heritage Priorities Plan” came back to council for the fourth phase of its ongoing implementation, and passed.
Council got its HalifACT update that Sam Austin told his peers was one of the reasons that “History will not be kind” to them. It turns out we’ve kind of achieved 25% of our HalifACT goals to fight global heating, which doesn’t sound like much and in reality is even less. For example, in the transportation section the fact that the city added just 2km of new AAA bike lanes is labelled as Some progress, instead of what could really only be considered Minimal progress in this PEI-sized municipality. Staff are also working to set up construction season this year. Now we wait and see if that off-season design work leads to a summer that feels more like complete or more like minimal in next year’s official municipal progress report.
Can I get a straw poll of #BikeHFX? HalifACT update puts 2km of bike lanes as "some progress" vs "minimal progress" (or complete) because it got the city to 45% completion of the planned AAA network and planning remains ongoing. What would you choose?— Matt Stickland, Chipotle of journalists (@LandOfSticks) January 10, 2024
In for a penny, in for a pound, councillor Lovelace also got a report to make sure if the city does designate lands for affordable housing, like they did last meeting, that staff make sure those pieces of land are able to handle on-site septic.
In today’s council meeting there were a few highlights. For example, it seems like councillor Tim Outhit’s motion to blow up the budget is having the desired effect. Under the new CAO it appears the city is finally learning how to implement its strategic plans in budget documents. Which is one of those don’t-think-about-the-implications-of-that-for-too-long pieces of good news. Anywho, this slight change in governance—first previewed back in April with the playing field strategy—combined with Outhit’s motion seem to be leading the city of Halifax into a place where municipal strategic plans are able to graduate from planning exercises into positive changes that exist in the real world. Council also blocked the infilling of the Northwest Arm. This should have been a meeting with much rejoicing.
Instead this was a meeting with much lamenting.
Let’s return to the HalifACT report. Before we get to Tuesday’s debate around it when the climate plan’s annual update came before council, it’s important to contextualize the debate itself. The reason this climate legislation exists is because Halifax declared a climate emergency, and HalifACT is the way the city will cut its greenhouse gas emissions to help keep the earth’s warming below 1.5 degrees Celcius from the pre-Industrial Age average. When Halifax first declared an emergency, the earth was supposed to hit 1.5 degrees in 2030, and so all of Halifax’s emissions reductions plans are aimed at 2030 goals. However, Tuesday was also the day we learned that the year of 1.5 degrees will likely be 2024, not 2030 like we are planning for.
The debate focused heavily on what other levels of government weren’t doing, and in response to councillor questions, it was reiterated multiple times that the city is doing everything within its power to prevent emissions. Except it’s not. Not really. Because ultimately, no matter how good the comms or branding, it’s hard to hide the fact that the city of Halifax is simply not treating our changing climate like it’s an emergency.
This is not to take away from the very real obstacles that exist between the provincial and municipal orders of government. The city’s automotive infrastructure is hemorrhaging money, and one of the things the city wants to do to make some money back by having speed cameras. The city has asked for this change, but this process is incredibly opaque and ripe for abuses of power. Essentially the city writes the provincial minister a letter asking for a change. Then the minister does it, or they do not. Staff and councillors often mention talks with the province but these are not conversations of public record. All we know is that the city wants speed cameras, the province says the work is ongoing, and now we wait to see what legislation falls out of Province House, if any. And the city staff told council they can’t do anything about the province holding up building code legislation, which will cause a lot of costly energy efficient retrofits down the road for things built under the older codes.
But it’s not true, across the board, to say provincial rules are the only thing preventing the otherwise willing municipal government from achieving its stated goals. For example, city staff highlighted in the HalifACT presentation the strides being taken to decarbonize our transportation. And decarbonizing transportation is an integral part of Halifax’s resilience and adaptation plans. Public charging infrastructure for electric cars should start popping up this spring. The city is buying electric buses. The city is trying to replace fleet vehicles with electric cars, but it’s a struggle because electric cars take a long time to get and the city is facing wait times that number in years. So the city is looking at partnering up with other organizations to increase the city’s buying power, and they’re also considering the used vehicle market. Even though staff have not been formally directed to do so yet, council could soon consider a motion to spend less on cars. Even though we know our fleet decarbonization isn’t going as fast as it should according to plan, even though we know already this delay exists, and even though this plan is likely too slow anyway, we are not seriously considering other viable, if outside the norm, options.
For example, the city often says safe streets are a priority, and we know that safe streets are slow streets. At this point it’s not debatable if 30km/hr streets should be standard for places where humans are supposed to exist outside of cars as well as inside them. The country of Wales did a comprehensive study. It’s been presented to the city. It is the best way to decarbonize our transportation, in line with HalifACT goals. And even though this is entirely within the power of our current council to enact on HRM-owned streets, they do not. For some reason, everyone at city hall seems to think that posted speed maximums are magic that prevent city planners from designing streets for a slower, safer, 30km/hr. When it comes to adapting our street designs to climate change, the city is quite explicitly not doing anything at all, even though the things they want to achieve are explicitly, according to the charter, within their power to control.
318 (1) All streets in the Municipality are vested absolutely in the Municipality. (2) In so far as is consistent with their use by the public, the Council has full control over the streets in the Municipality.
Multiple times at Tuesday’s meeting, staff and councillors reiterated the belief that Halifax’s municipal government is doing everything in its power to implement HalifACT and prevent the global temperature from rising. But that is simply not true. While it is accurate to say Halifax is doing everything it can within the bounds of the status quo, it is not accurate to say Halifax is a city that is doing everything it can.