No one was praying yesterday at City Hall, but there weren’t many moments of silence either. Despite a quiet period of reflection to open city council’s meeting (instead of the usual invocation), the preceding committee of the whole was swollen with chit chat. Finally, after months of high-level discussions and dozens of hours of debate, Halifax Regional Council officially approved this year’s operating and capital budgets.
Despite a rough year of snow clearing, mayor Mike Savage praised the assembled opus as a “pretty good story, overall.” The city is cautiously increasing its spending, while expenses are being handled “aggressively.” You can browse the thousands of pages in this year’s documents yourself right here. Some of the highlights include:
Taxes are going up
Council had originally directed staff to devise a budget that lowered taxes, or at least kept them neutral. That was a nice dream, but it didn’t work out in practice. Both property and commercial taxes are going up in Halifax. Even though the actual tax rates are remaining mostly flat, residents will see their tax bills increase by about three percent. It should work out to around $57 for every homeowner. Commercial taxes are set to go up by 2.3 percent. Most of the increase comes from inflation, with another large chunk to increase funding for Strategic Capital Projects. The city also had to make up for discontinuing area rates on municipal recreation facilities, as well as hiring more firefighters (which city council wedged into budget deliberations earlier this spring).
Halifax is $256 million in debt
It’s cool, though! “Halifax is in a strong, healthy financial position” the budget reads, and we’re “generally sustainable” in the long term. The debt is actually falling, which CAO Richard Butts proudly told council yesterday. Overall, HRM’s debt has fallen by $100 million since amalgamation in the '90s. Butts expects it to fall an additional $5 million this year, landing at $256,300,000. The municipal cost of debt remains small, working out to just $17 per person in Halifax. The provincial cost of debt, for comparison’s sake, comes out to $924 per person.
Surprise! We had a bad winter Remember that snow we got over the last couple months? It impacted more than just our collective mood. Those blizzards pushed Halifax into a $12.7-million deficit. That’s almost $10 million beyond what was predicted last quarter. The rest is coming from the $2.5 million needed to clean up the fuel spill at Halifax Transit’s Burnside terminal, and Deed Transfer revenue performing below expectations. Halifax will pull those costs from its reserve funds.
But Halifax isn’t increasing its snow budget (by much)
Despite being $10 million over budget—and having this terrible winter forever permafrosted into our memories—snow clearing operations will only increase by $1.7 million. Halifax has gone over budget on snow removal every year for the past six, but Richard Butts says we haven’t had to cover those costs with reserve funds for the past three. That wasn’t enough for some councillors. Steve Craig wondered at length why the city keeps under budgeting for snow year after year. The municipality’s winter works will be undergoing an external review soon to examine operations, so things could still change in future years. That won’t help matters next winter though, so vacation accordingly.
Know what’s cool? A billion dollars
Halifax’s total budget for the year is just over $1 billion. This year’s operating budget comes in at $869,244,500, while the capital budget is a comparitively more modest $135,804,000. Meanwhile, we’re pulling in nearly $654 million in revenue from property taxes, with an additional $215 million in revenue from “other” sources. Spending this year has increasing by almost three percent (or about $25 million).
Must be nice!
The city only pays $0.65 per litre for gas. That’s after market prices have been stripped of provincial fuel taxes (15.5 cents per litre), and based on the bulk purchase agreements the municipality has arranged. Diesel prices are $0.80 per litre.
The new library is a job creator
Halifax created 62 new full-time employment positions over the last year. The majority of those—40—are working at the Central Library. Almost $4 million is being spent on new employment positions, and another $6.7 million on wage increases. The municipality currently has 4,000 full- and part-time employees. Total salaries for those workers is expected to be $267 million this year (up by $8.5 million from last year). Of HRM’s nine collective agreements, three are set to expire in 2015/16.
Firefighters ain’t cheap
An additional $340,000 has been pumped into this year’s budget to accommodate council’s wishes for more firefighters. That directive was borne out of controversial debates earlier this spring. The vast majority of those funds will go towards the seven new firefighters and their uniforms, with $30,000 more for additional equipment. As mentioned above, taxes are increasing by 0.01 cent to counterbalance.
We didn’t have the right software to run a convention centre
Funding to the Nova Centre/WTFF increased this past year, to a total of $1.7 million. Part of that cost went towards new software, which soon-to-be-outgoing director of finance and information technology Greg Keefe told council was needed because the old software couldn’t handle more than one convention at the same time. The rest was spent on marketing and “operational readiness.” Basically, making sure we have conventions convene upon the convention centre. Keefe says everything’s fine now, and he’s not anticipating a further increase in scheduled funding. The current costs should be “enough to get us to opening day.” A financial report on the convention centre was ready for council yesterday, but delayed because city staff aren’t sure which provincial department is now handling the file. The MOU between Halifax and the province was with the Department of Economic Development, but as of a couple of weeks ago that no longer exists. Awkward.
The Ivany Report was only mentioned once
And just in the budget’s executive summary, which ominously notes that what happens across Nova Scotia affects Halifax.
The Mi’kmaq weren’t mentioned at all
The executive summary contains a small “Introduction to Halifax” describing various niceties about our city (bigger geographically than Prince Edward Island!), but fails to mention any of the land’s original inhabitants in its brief historical primer. Within this budget, the region’s history begins when “European settlement first occurred.”
Everyone hates stormwater charges
The right of way stormwater charge paid by homeowners is scheduled to increase this year ($39 to $41), but where residents will see that charge remains in limbo. During council proper, Russell Walker tabled a motion to rescind council’s directive from earlier this year to collect that money on Halifax Water bills instead of taxes. Many on council pointed out reversing the directive will just “hide” the charges, but residents have overwhelmingly expressed their outrage about this. Out of sight, out of mind is apparently preferred. And if that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say city council does not also blow. Walker’s motion of rescission passed, and a new staff report will be prepared looking at options for collecting the charge. For the time being, this aspect of the budget continues on as scheduled.
Lake Banook is not Lake Micmac
Sorry, I was wrong when I said the Mi’kmaq weren’t mentioned at all yesterday. Darren Fisher did make sure to stress that the $210,000 earmarked for harvesting weeds in Lake Banook will also go to weed clearing in Lake Micmac. The pesky weeds will hopefully start being cleared for swim season, should summer ever arrive.
Doors open, Halifax
People keep coming here. Halifax’s population of 414,400 is growing by just over one percent. Dwelling units are growing at 1.3 percent, comparatively. Over the past five years, more than 8,700 new jobs were created in the HRM and 13,000 new homes were built. Just last year, $660 million worth of building permits were issued.
That’s a lot of staplers!
Halifax spends over 700,000 a year on office supplies. Offsetting that a little bit, the city made a cool $300 last year in photocopier revenue.
Five councillors voted against ratifying the budget
Tim Outhit, Barry Dalrymple, Linda Mosher, Matt Whitman and Stephan Adams didn’t like what they saw yesterday. Outhit voiced his opposition to increasing taxes when almost no additional money was being put towards snow removal. “I think one of the few things people could have supported was an increase in taxes for better snow removal,” Outhit said. Adams accidentally missed the initial vote while out of the room when ratification was pushed up on the agenda. Council later gave Adams his own special voting time to register his disapproval.