Halifax councillors are looking at adding more staff to support their ambitious climate action plan.
HalifACT, adopted in 2020, aims to make HRM’s operations climate neutral by 2030. It’s a set of actions, including retrofitting municipal buildings, electrifying the vehicle fleet, and decarbonizing the electric grid.
In November, municipal staff told council’s Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee the plan was just 30% on track at the end of fiscal 2021-2022. That’s an improvement over 20% the year before.
In order to get back on track, Environment and Climate Change director Shannon Miedema proposed at the end of 2021 to hire eight more staff in 2022-2023, another eight in 2023-2024, and then nine in 2024-2025.
Eight new positions scrapped
Council’s budget committee heard a presentation from Miedema on Wednesday. She told the committee that due to HRM’s budget crunch, they scrapped the plan to hire eight people for 2023-2024.
“Our team is definitely very busy and stretched, but we are leveraging our partners, and using consultants as we need to, and working across the organization as we need to to do the work,” Miedema said.
“There’s definitely a strong case for needing to grow the team to push forward on all the pieces of the plan, but we understand where we are with the current budget constraints and we’re trying to follow the asks that were put in front of us.”
Miedema said she’s working to fill five vacant positions in the department. Sixteen positions are filled.
John MacPherson, executive director of Property, Fleet and Environment, told councillors he was no longer considering the eight new positions, but they’d be “on the table” in an upcoming year.
Chief administrative officer Cathie O’Toole argued it was smart to delay the positions.
“The approach that Shannon and John have brought forward is a wise one that I think all business units should be encouraged to be doing: not adding new positions until they’re actually needed and the climate is right for them to deliver the work,” O’Toole said.
Council looks to add positions back to the budget
On Tuesday, council voted in favour of a motion from Coun. Kathryn Morse to add one of the eight potential positions to its budget adjustment list. That person would be tasked with implementing HRM’s Green Network Plan, ensuring its green belt is kept intact. There was no dollar figure attached. Councillors will debate that addition at the end of the budget process, in late-March.
Deputy Mayor Sam Austin moved on Wednesday for a briefing note on adding some or all of the remaining positions. Specifically, he moved for a briefing note “including the role of each position, the potential impact on HalifACT, and the budgetary implications.”
“People, this is the most pressing, urgent emergency of our time,” Austin said.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and right now, I’m not confident we have a good, solid plan.”
Previously, Austin had moved for a briefing note on adding all seven to the budget adjustment list, with consideration to funding them through the Climate Action Tax. That tax, originally introduced as 3% increase to the average tax bill last year, brings in $18 million annually. But it’s only supposed to cover capital costs, not operating expenses.
Coun. Tim Outhit said he wasn’t comfortable adding all seven positions to the budget adjustment list. Austin withdrew that motion in favour of the more open-ended option.
CAO not confident staffing is adequate
Mayor Mike Savage didn’t support that original motion either. He noted the department has gone from two people to five to eight to 16, and he’s supported the increases. But another eight?
“It seems a bit much to me,” Savage said.
Savage may have been moved by a later admission from O’Toole. The new CAO was asked whether she’s confident the HalifACT team can meet targets with its existing staffing level.
“Am I confident we have the right staffing to deliver this year’s goals? No,” O’Toole said, noting capital projects budgeted last year haven’t happened yet.
O’Toole said she wants to look at staffing across the municipal workforce to determine whether it’s being appropriately used.
“So I do not have confidence that they’re correctly staffed,” O’Toole said.
Austin’s modified motion passed 14-2, with councillors Trish Purdy and Paul Russell voting no.