The Law Courts on Lower Water Street.
Luckily, the city's lawyers aren't paid by the hour.
Halifax's legal director John Traves told council this week that his department has seen a 25 percent
increase in litigation against the municipality since 2016/17.
“It’s not just more numbers,” said Traves. “It’s more challenging in terms of the claims that are being brought.”
The docket ranges from handling labour issues to defending HRM in contentious human rights cases
and battling prominent developers
claiming land expropriation. And all that law and order comes with a cost.
City hall's team of in-house counsel has shot up from 12 to 22 over the past decade. The municipality has also spent $60,000 over the past fiscal year on external legal help.
Traves offered these details at a committee of the whole meeting on Wednesday where he was presenting his department's budget
for the upcoming year for council's approval.
Like other staff units, the legal, municipal clerk and external affairs budget presupposes several options for holding the line on increases to the average tax bill, given HRM’s tight pocketbooks.
The department's $4.3-million budget for legal services could be shrunk from a 2.9 percent
option to a 2.1 percent
bump if council chooses to axe $100,000 worth of funding over the next two years for the Halifax Partnership and the Navigator street outreach program
. Alternatively, $230,000 could be saved over the same period (for a 1.9 percent
increase) if HRM disbarred its articled clerk training program, where recent law school grads get real-world lawyering experience.
Neither option was appetizing to the mayor.
“John, you know I love you man, but I gotta tell you, I feel more like we’re being blackmailed under this system. I really do,” said Mike Savage about the options presented by staff. The mayor compared the decision to being presented with the choice to kill three cats or two kittens.
“I have nothing but kittens to offer up,” replied Traves.
Savage said he would prefer to see options for reducing legal staff numbers, which accounts for 95 percent
of the department's budget. The mayor likes to hire out on contract, it seems.
“I love contracting out for services,” said Savage. “I think they’re the best value because you don’t end up bringing employees in, giving them full benefits and everything else. And after the work is gone, they’re still there. You pay for the expertise you need.”
Council eventually went forward with the 1.9 percent
option, while keeping several of the planned cuts and additional budget expenses available in a fiscal "parking lot" to be debated in April before the city's final budget is approved.
This year's budget process has been a battleground of debates and delays
looks to hold the line on tax increases while funding the civic plans and priorities approved over the past several years.
Councillors deferred a discussion on the proposed capital budget back in December, and then again earlier this week, in hopes staff can find another $21.8 million for projects like implementing the Integrated Mobility Plan and transit improvements—items that CAO Jacques Dubé and staff originally left unfunded
Budget debates for HRM's other business units continue over the next several weeks.