Council split on budget approval

Tim Outhit says he can't “in good conscience” support 2018-19 budget due to 1.975 percent tax increase.

click to enlarge Noted nay-sayer Tim Outhit - RILEY SMITH
Noted nay-sayer Tim Outhit

It's a bit of a bad news story if you ask Tim Outhit.

Council approved HRM's billion-dollar 2018-19 budget on Tuesday after some three hours of debate, with Outhit and fellow councillor Shawn Cleary being the only two votes against.

The financial plan increases the average tax bill in Halifax by 1.975 percent—about $37 per single-family home—while the average commercial tax bill will see a decrease of 1.1 percent.

It’s the culmination of months of fiscal planning by HRM staff, who were directed by council back in December to move forward with the roughly two percent increase.

Despite the lengthy groundwork, some councillors wanted to call an audible on fourth-and-goal.

A proposed amendment by Outhit would have used $1.89 million from HRM’s reserve funds to cut the tax increase off at 1.6 percent.

The Bedford–Wentworth councillor said he could not “in good conscience” support the higher tax hike while sitting on $15-million surplus this year.

Staff and other councillors strongly recommended against using the one-time surplus funds for ongoing operating expenses—a conversation council had many times during the past budget season.

“I tear my hair out wondering what the heck we’ve been doing giving staff direction over the last three-and-a-half, four months, under the premise that it was going to be 1.9 percent,” pleaded Bill Karsten. “We talked about this.”

Mayor Mike Savage voiced support for Outhit’s plan, even while admitting a 1.97 percent increase is still below inflation and the five percent-or-higher hikes being seen in other Canadian cities this year.

“I’m pretty comfortable with where we’re headed, whether it’s 1.97 or 1.6,” said Savage. “My preference would be 1.6.”

Finance staff had anticipated a 1.6 percent increase back when they were crunching numbers during year one of HRM’s two-year budget planning process. But that figure rose last summer after an arbitration decision on Halifax Regional Police wages.

The service costs for both the police department and Halifax Fire and Emergency are growing at nearly 13 percent and are currently unsustainable, CAO Jacques Dubé warned council on Tuesday.

“This condition cannot continue,” said Dubé, who predicted tough decisions “surely lie ahead” for Halifax.

Outhit’s amendment was eventually defeated 9-6, motivating the councillor to vote against the final document.

“This has been a great process—a great budget—but I cannot support a budget that gives people an unnecessarily high tax increase,” he said.

The 2018-19 budget includes $918 million in operating costs—$157.9 million of which goes directly to mandatory provincial payments—and $128 million in capital expenses.

Staff will now go back to the books to produce the next two-year budget cycle, returning to council for more fiscal direction later this fall.

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