How Halifax city council screws working people
Two issues of note were discussed by city council yesterday. The first was a plan to award “density bonusing” to developers who include a few units of “affordable housing” in their new buildings. I’ll return to that momentarily, but first I want to speak about the second issue — a new governance scheme for “multi-district recreation facilities” — the big rec centres: the Dartmouth Sportsplex, Cole Harbour Place, St. Margarets Centre, Centennial Pool, Halifax Forum, the Sackville Sports Stadium, and, just to confuse things, Alderney Landing.
There’s a long history here that I’ll mostly gloss over, except to say that through pre- and post-amalgamation, each of these centres has had different management and financial structures and some have been more successful than others in financial terms. The short of it is that they are now considered community facilities run by their own boards of directors. They each hire most of their own employees and pay their own bills, but the city is the ultimate owner of the facilities, so if one has a huge operating deficit (which happens often) or is successfully sued for a worker’s injury (which so far as I know hasn’t yet happened), the city covers the bill.
Over the past few years, the city has been attempting to regularize the management of these facilities — that is, to bring them under one system, to set standardized fees, to have more oversight of facility management, make sure worker safety policies are in place, and so forth. This is good policy. It protects the city’s financial interests, it protects workers, it brings sense to the city’s recreational goals, and it will in the end result in a system where a paying member of one facility will be able to use each of the others. I need to stress: my observation is that city staff has done a very good job herding these cats into one system, and has gotten agreement and buy-in from each of the boards. This is the kind of good work bureaucrats are never much commended for publicly, and yet they should be.
(Parenthetically, I’ll add that the Recreation Department has also made laudable changes in its policies, freezing rec fees for six years and increasing its focus on “unstructured” rec programs like free skating on the Oval. There’s still a long way to go, but the department has made these changes within the budget it’s been given by council, and so the work is all the more laudable.)
So far so good.
Basically what’s happening here is that the city is acknowledging that it is the ultimate owner and manager of the rec centres, but is off-loading day-to-day operations to a local board of directors. The argument could be made that the local boards are more in tune with and can better respond to the needs of their communities. Maybe. But another implication is that the city is also off-loading labour costs.
Each facility sets its own pay scale for workers, which is far below the city’s regular wage scale. For example, a cleaner or security guard working directly for the city makes $20/hour plus benefits, while people with the same positions doing the same jobs at Cole Harbour Place make $12.12/hour with no benefits. Pay scales are just as dismal at the other multi-district facilities.
The city wants it both ways: It wants to cover its financial and legal responsibilities with the new governance contracts, but it also wants to avoid its moral responsibilities to workers.
By approving the new four-year governance contracts with each of the facilities yesterday, council essentially condemned the workers at these facilities to four years of poverty. Likewise, when council approved a contract with a cleaning firm for services at the Sackville Sports Stadium, it condemned the workers of the firm to three years of poverty.
But, you might say, these rec centres are already on shoestring budgets and can’t afford to pay the wages paid by the city. That argument might be more persuasive had a pertinent issue not been discussed yesterday. One of the city’s concerns with the rec centre boards is whether or not they are covered by the requirements of the “sunshine list” — that is, whether they have to publicly report all salaries over $100,000. It turns out that city solicitor Jon Traves has written a memo to the Canada Games Centre about that very issue, so presumably at least one manager (and likely more) at the CGC (and likely other facilities) is making more than $100,000.
As I’ve said before, I don’t have any problem with managers and others getting paid over $100,000 for their work. But to then turn around and pay the people cleaning the toilets and locker rooms 12 bucks an hour is just unconscionable. It’s obscene, really.
Someone making $12 an hour is someone with two or three jobs. It’s someone who lives hand-to-mouth, who has no financial security, is a pay cheque away from disaster. It’s someone whose life collapses if they have to take off work to tend to a sick kid.
Working with the United Way, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pegged a living wage in Halifax at $20.10/hour, and that still doesn’t allow for any savings. Most, but not all, people who work directly for the city get somewhere in that ballpark. But because there is no living wage ordinance, council can contract out work and avoid paying people working at city-owned facilities or on city-directed projects a decent wage. And that’s exactly what’s happening with the rec centres.
When I criticize councillors for not acting on a living wage ordinance or demanding that living wage policies be included in contracts, I get two responses. They couldn’t include such a policy in the “council priorities” adopted a couple of weeks ago because the priorities are “big picture” concerns, and a living wage ordinance is a particular policy that needs to be adopted. But then again, living wage requirements can’t be added to tender offers or management agreements because a living wage is a broader “big picture” policy that needs to be adopted through a council directive.
A couple of councillors assure me they are “working on” a living wage policy, but I don’t see any of that work. At any meeting, any councillor could put forward a notice of motion saying that at the next meeting he or she will present a motion calling for a staff report on a living wage ordinance. That’s how the ball gets rolling on this. But so far, no councillor has done so. I guess this is supposed to be some backroom discussion, where staff and other councillors will be asked, pretty please, consider this thing. I guess it’s considered rude to have the conversation in public and on the record. Meanwhile, other business goes on, condemning workers to years of future poverty.
And that brings me to the other issue discussed by council yesterday — the affordable housing issue. There was much self-congratulating over this new initiative, which amounts to lessening regulations on developers in return for including a few “affordable” units in each new building. For example, a developer building in a zone with a seven-storey height limit could instead build a 14-storey building if he includes nine affordable units in it. That is, they dangled more profit potential in front of developers.
There’s no argument that we have a housing affordability crisis in Halifax. But that’s because builders aren’t building to potential buyers from across the income range. There’s simply too much speculative money entering the market, both on the building side and the buying side. It’s a classic market failure: there’s a need and demand for affordable housing, but the market ignores that demand. I would argue that the solution is to better fund non-market strategies for housing — cooperative, housing trusts, and so forth — but council just doubled down on market strategies in a failed market.
Regardless, while councillors seem wed to the market, it seems not to have occurred to them that demand is also part of a free market, and one way to deal with this crisis would be to help people have more money to buy housing. That is: to increase their wages. A living wage ordinance wouldn’t solve the entire housing crisis, but neither does the initiative council passed yesterday.
So, to solve a housing crisis, council rewarded rich developers with more potential profits, while to deal with a rec centre management issue, it screwed workers out of a living wage. These two things are not just related — they’re the same issue. We will not solve our problems by giving rich people more ways to make still more money. We’ll start solving our problems by addressing inequality in our society, and we start doing that by passing a living wage ordinance.
1. Film money
After the Film Tax Credit was axed and replaced with a film fund managed by NSBI, writes Paul Andrew Kimball, “one of the things that the McNeil government stressed repeatedly was that the new funding system would be more transparent than the old one.”:
The problem with the film and television industry, however, is that even transparency can appear opaque to the general public. Almost all funding is still given to single-purpose production companies, because that’s how the industry functions. That can make it hard for people who don’t have a scorecard to know who really has care and control of the money.
I was curious to see which companies (and which individuals) were doing the best under the new funding regime, as well as which types of production, so I did a bit of digging at the Registry of Joint Stocks. Had the veteran players been replaced by newer ones, or had the new system more or less worked to the benefit of the same folks as the old system had?
The answer is that the same people who were successful under the old system have been the same people who have generally been successful under the new system.
The government has committed $17,001,420 to film and television productions through the NSFPIF since it was created in 2015 (this does not include the $5,927,492 that was given for the production of the television series The Mist, a service production funded by the government outside the NSFPIF). Of that amount, 87.42% has gone to eight groups of single purpose companies (in three cases, these are sole single purpose production companies), which have each received at least 3% of the overall funding and which can generally be classified, in the case of the groups of companies, as having the same command and control in terms of the individuals who operate them.
Kimball* goes on to name the big winners (see the complete list at the link, but the bulk of the money went to long established companies like The Trailer Park Boys and DHX), and then notes three points. First, that there is a big gender imbalance in who receives funding — almost all the money went to men. Second, we call it the “film” industry, but most of the money goes to TV productions. Thirdly:
When the film funding system was created in the 1990s by the Liberal government of John Savage, the name given to the crown agency that was set up to administer the various funds was the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation. I worked there as the Program Administrator from May 1998 until June 1999, and we took the “development” part of our name very seriously, because we recognized that even as we were funding established producers and companies, it was just as important to be building up new producers and new companies at the same time. We implicitly understood that in the business world the Marxist perspective was fundamentally correct – that the most important metric was who controlled a company (i.e. the means of production). Even as we supported the growth of companies like Salter Street Films (the antecedent to DHX), we wanted to always be bringing new voices into the mix and helping them grow. When I look at the statistics today, of the people and companies being funded by the NSFPIF, I see a lot of names that were at the top of the food chain almost twenty years ago, but what I don’t see anymore are those new voices in positions of control. Of all the companies or groups of companies that have been funded to date, I count only three that could be classified as “new voices” in terms of controlling the means of production – Jessica Brown, Corey Bowles and Aaron Horton, and Ashley McKenzie and Nelson MacDonald. The total amount of money given to this group? $141,416, or 0.83% of the total committed to through the NSFPIF.
* I’m never quite sure how to refer to these men with three names, which I think is a thing Antigonish parents do to confuse CFAs like myself. Is the family name joining the last names of the father and mother, so Paul Andrew Kimball is referred to on second reference as Andrew Kimball? Or do we follow the Spanish custom of referring to him as Mr. Andrew, which in this case would presumably be his father’s surname? Alternatively, the first two names could be a composite first name, in which case we informally refer to him as Paul Andrew. I’m thinking this is the case, because I’ve learned to refer to John Wesley Chisholm informally as John Wesley (never just John) and formally, or on second reference in writing, as Chisholm. So I’m calling this fellow Kimball. If that’s wrong and offensive, take it up with his parents. See also: Ron Foley MacDonald.
2. Winter has arrived, which means…
As inevitable and time certain as the sparrows returning to Capistrano on the Feast of St. Joseph, with Nova Scotia’s first snowfall comes Parker Donham’s annual complaint about people overreacting to weather.
It’s heartening that in this topsy turvy world some things things are completely predictable.
My own predictable response to the change in seasons is a fear of the ice. I don’t really care much about honest snow, which we can push out of the way easily enough and get on with life, but last night a slight icy sheen appeared on the sidewalks, sending me into full panic. I remember the winter from hell, when six inches of ice covered our sidewalks. I remember slipping and breaking my wrist. And now the paralyzing fear is returning, and I’m afraid I’ll be in a constant state of anxiety for the next three months, incapable of simply walking down the street. Please, people, do whatever it takes to make the sidewalks ice-free: salt, sand, blowtorches, a giant dome over the city…
City Council (10am, City Hall) — council is taking up its “fiscal framework” and other long-term budget planning.
Design Advisory Committee (3pm, City Hall) — committee members will talk about the Centre Plan for a bit, then maybe take a stroll on the boardwalk they just destroyed.
Halifax Explosion 100th Anniversary Advisory Committee (3pm, NS Community College, IT Campus) — the most important thing on the agenda, and I’m not kidding, is a letter from James Barry, President of the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums.
Halifax & West Community Council (6pm, City Hall) — Mythos Development is coming back with a slightly scaled back application for a seven-storey, 81-unit apartment building at North and Oxford Streets, where the the former St. Theresa Convent is. Remember that Centre Plan that is to be adopted this month? Yeah, well, whatever, staff is recommending this proposal be approved, and a seven-storey building miraculously becomes a six-storey building:
Staff have reviewed the application and the existing policy context and advise that the MPS should be amended to enable a six storey multi-unit residential building on the site. The underutilized development potential of the site, strategic regional centre location of the proposal, access to active transportation systems and proximity to the proposed Centre Plan Chebucto Road Secondary Corridor align with the objectives of the Regional Plan for urban densification in strategic locations. Attention to the massing of the building, transition to the existing low density neighbourhood and appropriate streetscaping can be achieved through proposed MPS policy. Therefore, staff recommend that the Halifax and West Community Council recommend that Regional Council approve the proposed MPS and LUB amendments as set out in Attachments A and B of this report.
Update: reader Ian Watson (see comments) suggests a more charitable reading: staff is recommending that the committee approve a six-storey limit to the site, and the developer can meet that if he wants, but his current proposal doesn’t fit it. That makes more sense, now that I think on it.
Public Accounts (9am, Province House) — Big fun today as folks from Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and Tourism Nova Scotia will be asked about the Yarmouth Ferry.
Anonymous (8pm, Dalhousie Art Gallery) — a screening of Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film, which posits that Shakespeare was… well, some crazy thing. Stars Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave.
In the harbour
4:30am: Performance, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Damietta, Egypt
6am: Elektra, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Liverpool, England
6:15am: Hollandia, general cargo, arrives at Pier 31 from Mariel, Cuba
11am: Latgale, oil tanker, arrives at Anchorage from Beaumont, Texas
11:30am: Nanny, oil tanker, sails from Pier 9 for sea
1pm: Macao Strait, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for Mariel, Cuba
2pm: ZIM Luanda, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Valencia, Spain
4pm: Atlantic Star, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from New York
5pm: Performance, container ship, sails from Fairview Cove for New York
6pm: Elektra, car carrier, moves from Autoport to Pier 31
7pm: Hollandia, general cargo, sails from Pier 31 for Rotterdam
9pm: Elektra, car carrier, moves from Pier 31 back to Autoport
2:30am: ZIM Luanda, container ship, sails from Pier 41 for New York
6am: Octavia, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from New York
7am: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Pier 36 from Saint-Pierre
I’ll be on The Sheldon MacLeod Show, News 95.7, at 2pm.