HRM's budget committee settles on tax rate and extra spending for 2020/21

Funding for splash pads, more books and menstural products en route in Halifax.

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Laughin' straight to the bank. (Ha ha ha ha ha ha) - JESS REDLARSKI
  • Jess Redlarski
  • Laughin' straight to the bank. (Ha ha ha ha ha ha)
Halifax Regional Council's budget committee settled on a tax rate and some extra spending for the 2020/21 year this week. The way the budget process unfolds in Halifax is set up to increase clarity and create more space for filtering out wants versus needs. The result, if given final approval from council, will be a 1.4 percent increase in the average tax bill—about $27 for the average household per year.

After a good 30 minutes of pontification about fiscal responsibility at Wednesday's meeting, the committee got around to green-lighting almost every single item on the parking lot (the name for the holding space where wants from different departments are pushed after council approves their initial budgeted needs).

At the beginning of this year's budget process back in November, the committee heard that capital spending would outstrip funding to keep things as they are, so staff recommended that the municipality take on more debt than normal ($13 million) to cover the costs. Thanks in part to a projected $16 million in surplus money and another $4.5 million extra from property value assessments, budget committee was able to cancel the plan to take on debt and say yes to almost all of the $9.2 million parking lot still be in the black.

Some of the parking lot items approved were:
$500,000 for splash pads around HRM.
$300,000 for extra staff in the clerk's office and for the legal team.
$50,000 for Halifax Public Libraries programming to prevent social isolation through food programming. (Last year, the committee said no t0 the $50,000 in the parking lot for after school snacks provided at Halifax Public Libraries.)
$34,000 for overnight winter parking ban enforcement. (The committee also voted to increase municipal parking tickets from $25 to $35 which is projected to bring in an extra $175,000 in the year.)
$50,000 for increases to municipal lifeguard's salaries.
$150,000 for Halifax Regional Police (Police Chief Dan Kinsella said at the meeting that it'd likely go towards new staff positions).
$125,000 for The Bus Stop Theatre (which will be funded from a reserve account).
$225,000 for increasing the collection at Halifax Public Libraries. (Did you know if you have a library card you can request any book in the whole entire world for the library to add to its collection? This money will go towards those requests—and increasing the number of copies of books to decrease wait times, which are currently about 65 weeks.)

But not everything in the parking lot was funded in full. The budget committee approved only $100,000 for the accessible taxi grant program. Staff say the full-blown program will cost around $500,000 but since HRM  has to wait on a provincial exemption to get things rolling, it's not likely all the money would be used in the 2020/21 year. (Right now there are only 11 accessible taxis on the road in Halifax.)

In a win for period poverty, Councillor Lorelei Nicoll's initiative for menstrual products in all HRM facilities was approved—but not on the parking lot list. Apparently there's enough money in the corporate and customer services budget for the program, which also means it's being rolled into regular operations and likely won't have to be debated in the parking lot in future years.

The $2 million for upgrades to the Keshen Goodman Public Library was also in the parking lot but ended up being funded from the capital reserve fund (earmarked for big infrastructure upgrades or builds on things like libraries—it's the same fund that the $20 million for a stadium will come from if it can find a place to call home.)

Staff will now go and draft an official budget, which will be voted on by Regional Council in March. 

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