- THE COAST
Halifax Regional Council's committee of the whole made it through the second half of its budget adjustment list for this year’s recast budget on Friday. This article includes decisions made at Thursday's meeting too, just to keep things all in one place.
The budget adjustment list was the product of a motion allowing councillors to reconsider some of the proposed service, operational and capital reductions or postponements that made up staff's proposed $85 million cut from the budget for the 2020/21 year of COVID.
Friday's discussion concluded the lengthy process, and leaves staff to come back to council with a finalized budget that includes a more accurate update on how many people paid their taxes by June 1 (this was a big factor in cuts, as staff's prediction that not everyone would be able to pay would leave HRM with a cashflow problem), some new ways to pay for things being saved (like spending more of the 2019/20 surplus or taking money from the municipality's "rainy day" reserves) and adds back the items that councillors saved from being cut.
The plan is to keep the tax rate the same as what was decided on in March, an increase that's not really an increase because of inflation and because councillors hate to raise taxes. The 1.4 percent increase in the average tax bill would amount to about $27 for the average household per year.
The final budget will come to council for a vote on June 9—months after it would have in a normal year.
Here’s the rundown of what was saved and what was left alone from staff's initial proposed $85 million trim.
- The proposed $11 million cut to the municipality’s vacancy management (jobs that are currently not filled and therefore wouldn’t be filled if the money was cut) was sliced in half, keeping $5.6 million in play to fill jobs as the municipality sees fit.
- $2 million was shaved off the proposed cuts to Halifax Regional Police and almost $1.9 million was shaved off the proposed cuts to Halifax Fire. Both departments will spend the money on staffing, but councillors can't direct where exactly the money is spent. (This was decided outside of the budget adjustment list process, but followed the same logic.)
- The proposed $4 million cut to parks and recreation funding for day camps and recreational facilities was reduced to $3.5 million, with director Denise Schofield saying that the province loosening gathering restrictions means HRM is working to have some form of day camp, but noting that it’d be highly modified and nowhere near normal summer camp levels. A bit of the $500,000 saved will also help some facilities open up over the next few months.
- $315,000 for seasonal employees who tidy up around the downtown area, often in coordinated, brightly coloured t-shirts.
- $150,000 for community grants—the proposed cut was one-third of the originally allotted money. Councillors voted to keep the whole amount available for community groups.
- $110,000 for museum grants.
- $345,000 for Barrington Street tax grants that will help the folks on Barrington do some of the historically minded development the city is asking them for.
- Staff proposed cutting 85 percent of the Integrated Mobility Plan funding to the tune of $85,000. Council said no!
- $230,000 was saved to pay for HRM to continue to collect and test beach water throughout the municipality. (The cut was drafted before the province opened beaches. Last summer, by the end of August this testing led to beaches being closed 14 times due to high bacteria levels in the water.)
- $80,000 for a heritage planner.
- $300,000 to Discover Halifax—less than the $1,360,600 that normally comes through the hotel levy transfer tax, but enough for work through the summer to promote local staycation tourism in the city.
- $100,000 for regional special events, bringing the total back up to $215,000 for local groups to plan events in their communities. The initial cut was made thinking COVID-19 would drastically change events, which it will, but councillors wanted to keep their options open and be able to encourage people to do new ideas, like drive-in movies and virtual events.
- $50,000 to help rural transit drivers of MusGo Rider Cooperative, East Hants Community Rider and BayRides so they "don't lose their shirts," as councillor David Hendsbee said.
- $250,000 for hand shovelling of snow around downtown Halifax. These crews get what the sidewalk machines can't—a save for accessibility and an eye-opening budget item for councillor Steve Streatch.
- $600,000 for the senior snow removal program offered in partnership with the YMCA. Every year this program has seen increasing demand, and while this year's increase may not be met with more money, what they got last year will stick around for one more season at least.
- $137,000 saved that will now hire three six-month positions for HRM's HalifACT 2050 project. As councillor Shawn Cleary said, "this is for that other crisis that we're already in, and that's the climate crisis."
- Councillor Sam Austin fought hard to save $2 million for the downtown Dartmouth renewal project, and won. He says this will allow for land acquisition that will keep the extensive project moving forward.
- $16,300 to keep up the city's NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) membership.
- $37,000 for community events like the New Year’s Day levee put on by the mayor’s office.
- $75,000 for the citizen survey
- $750,000 for district capital fund. In a move that almost backfired, councillor Cleary had asked that these funds be cut, instead of just deferred as staff suggested, but it turns out eight of the 16 councillors + one mayor actually wanted to use these funds in their district this year. Not enough to defeat the motion, but just enough to expose the unspeakable rural-urban divide.
- $250,000 to get some tree planting back in the budget, brought forward by councillor Austin, lover of trees.
- $283,000 in ferry service reduction–mostly because the ferries are running less now anyways.
- $210,000 for lake-weed harvesting.
- $100,000 for the accessible taxi grant program development. This program is supposed to make it easier for people to own and operate accessible taxis—of which there are fewer than 20 in the whole municipality.
- $125,000 in grant funding that council had voted to increase the professional art grants by, but left alone this year, leaving the amount at the previous $435,000. The applications that may qualify for that funding are already in and will be reviewed once council approves the final budget.
- $1.6 million to renovate Fire Station 2 on University Avenue is deferred a year, effectively being cut from this year's budget.
It's important to remember these are not the only things that were included in staff’s proposed $85 million in cuts. This is the result of councillors asking department heads questions, and choosing which items they want a chance to reconsider. What was originally proposed by staff is business. What stays and what goes, well, that's politics.