In a meeting dominated by a discussion of what public safety is and what it will mean in the future, HRM’s budget committee discussed the first three business unit budgets up for consideration. Two of them—city finance department’s $15.4 million budget and the city legal department’s $8.8 million budget—both passed through the committee with minimal debate. Both of these departments kind of have to exist, and their duties and responsibilities are well defined in the various pieces of legislation that allow the city to exist and exert its power. As a result, those two budgets and associated debates around them were pretty tame.
The most contentious part of Friday’s debate came in the discussion around the third business unit budget: The city’s chief administrative officer's office. Specifically, two bits of public safety policy. In the CAO’s budget, there are two requests for more money. One is $125,000 for an additional street navigator. Street navigators are people who work with and help the growing unhoused population in the HRM. Although the current street navigator programs are funded by business district associations, they work throughout the city trying to help people who are being crushed by capitalism survive somewhat better. Chair of the budget committee Paul Russell stepped down from the chair to speak to this budget item, saying, “This is outside of our lane. This is not something we do.” He pointed to a program run by Beacon House in Lower Sackville, a charity that operates on donations. It is successful, as Russell points out, but depends on the generosity of the community.
This, by the way, is one of the main planks of modern (small-c) conservative social and monetary theory. The theory goes like this: Government should be limited because humans are good and can decide what’s best for themselves. Therefore, government services should be limited to the bare minimum (i.e. what is defined as their responsibility, in this case) to keep costs low and put more money in our pockets. Then, instead of forcing people to spend money on taxes for public goods that they may or may not support, people should and will take their extra money and spend it on charity instead. But policies in line with that political theory have demonstrated that they are not super effective at delivering public benefit, have evolved into a system to help the rich get richer, and are actively hurting the charitable sector.
Anyway, Russell was the only vote against it, so that $125,000 ask will go to the budget adjustment list.
The budget committee also extensively debated the new money for the city’s public safety strategy. The old public safety strategy expired last year, and the new one will be presented to council in early March. Although the details of the new strategy are not yet known, public safety advisor Amy Siciliano has been making the rounds at various public meetings giving a preview. This strategy is promising to shift away from reactive policing as the main response to public safety and start investing in things that will actually reduce crime, like street navigators and sobering centres.
The debate around this was contentious because any major change is scary, and in this case, the waters aren’t fully charted. Civilian mental health response teams seem to be working better than police. Safe injection sites seem to be working. But implementing these programs comes at a cost—$1.8 million next year, to be exact. And the cost savings of these programs isn’t always clear. If, for example, safe injection sites save money on ambulances and ER wait times, that’s a saving for people who pay Nova Scotia taxes, but it’s not a saving for the city. City politicians could consider a program like safe injection sites as a public good worth funding, but it would be just as easy for them to consider it a municipal expense that only benefits the provincial government’s budget.
This got sent to the budget adjustment list, as councillors wanted to get the presentation from Sciliano on the strategy before making a major financial decision, with councillors Shawn Cleary and Paul Russel voting against doing so.
And as those items work their way through the budget process, it’s worth remembering the history of ambulances. As deputy mayor Sam Austin pointed out, until 1968, ambulances were run by funeral homes. Funeral homes started doing ambulance runs for friends and family because they had cars that could carry people lying down, but they couldn’t maintain the service as demand grew. Mayor Mike Savage credits his dad, John Savage, and then health minister Dr. Ron Stewart for making the “courageous decision” to modernize emergency medicine and make ambulances a public good administered by the government.
The decision to switch from hearses to ambulances, from private care to public care, felt as outlandish to people then as switching the role of policing does today. Modern policing is the equivalent of using hearses for health care. Using police for everything works fine if there’s no better option, but there are better options now, so council will consider making use of them when it votes in March.
The committee also voted to send the following budget cuts to the budget adjustment list:
The city is considering limiting the statutory holiday operating hours of 311, except in cases of emergency, which would save $75,000 if approved.
The city is considering charging a fee to homeowners associations with private roads paid for by area rates. This fee would net the city about $70,000.
The city is also considering cutting the funding to Volta Labs now that it’s established, and because the province is doing the same. That would save about $260,000.