1. City budget
“They flirted with the idea of dipping into the savings account to lower the number, but in the end Halifax regional councillors approved the municipality’s budget for the year ahead with an increase of nearly 2 per cent to the average property tax bill,” reports Zane Woodford for Metro:
Councillor Tim Outhit led a charge to bring that number back down to 1.6 per cent, which was the plan this time last year.
Outhit proposed to take $1.89 million from the municipality’s general contingency reserve — its savings account, in household terms — and put it on the operating budget. That reserve account is expected to get a big deposit this year, with the municipality now projecting a surplus of more than $15 million for the now complete 2017/18 fiscal year.
But municipal staff have repeatedly cautioned against that approach.
“Reserves are not designed to fund ongoing operations,” CAO Jacques Dubé told councillors on Tuesday.
Here’s my thumbnail assessment of the city’s budget situation:
After amalgamation in 1996, municipal finances were out of control. It was impossible to easily meld the various predecessor town, city, and county budgets and bureaucracies into one coherent whole, and politicians and bureaucrats lacked the wisdom, ability, and desire to bring discipline into the process. Budgets ballooned, debt soared. I’m not a knee-jerk antigovernment type, but even from my perspective, HRM was a fiscal mess.
That began to change, however, around 2006 or so. Thanks largely to the efforts of then-Finance Director Cathie O’Toole, rational budgeting systems were put into place, and the city got a handle on both its debt and capital budgets. Debt increases reversed, and with one momentarily blip upwards — when, for political reasons, the Harper government pulled post-recession stimulus funding of the four-pad arena in Bedford, causing the city to unexpectedly eat the entire $50 million cost — total city debt began a steady downward trend that continues to this day.
The “fiscal discipline” was ratcheted up by CAO Richard Butts, who managed to end the horse-trading that characterized council’s budgeting sessions — a good thing — but also slashed staff, refused to hire new staff to replace outgoing workers, contracted out work, and took a hard line against the employee unions. Under Butts, the only thing that mattered was that costs were cut and taxes weren’t raised — we went four years with either a decrease in the tax rate such that even with higher assessments the “average home” saw a $0 tax increase, or no increase in the tax rate such that tax bills only increased to the amount of the assessment cap (the rate of inflation). The result of this to-the-bone budgeting was that services suffered — streets and sidewalks weren’t plowed properly, ballfield grass wasn’t cut, and so forth.
Until last year, I argued that total city debt was too low. We should build needed things — rec centres, fire stations, etc. — and spread the capital costs of those facilities over future years. The last couple of years, even the Chamber of Commerce has been congratulating the city for its budgeting process.
In the above analysis, small increases in the tax rate, such as passed by council yesterday, make sense, if only to bring the level of city services back to an acceptable norm.
But there’s a gigantic “however” in this story. And that’s, you guessed it, the convention centre.
Just as city government was bringing costs, debt, and the budgeting process under control, politicians and bureaucrats signed onto the convention centre deal that makes that 10-year exercise in budgeting discipline entirely irrelevant.
Yesterday’s debate about using an unexpected $15 million surplus, instead of a tax increase, to offset increased costs illustrates the point. The surplus comes thanks to a handful of very large commercial property sales, which contributed to deed transfer tax revenues.
As we learned earlier this month, the projected tax revenue from the Nova Centre has taken a gigantic $25 million hit at the 10-year point. A one-year $15 million surplus applied against that hit makes it a still-painful but more manageable $9 million shortfall… except. Except that’s not the full story. The $25 million hit is the best case scenario, and as I’ll be reporting soon, the real number is likely to be much, much higher — perhaps as high as $50 million.
More importantly, the Nova Centre tax revenue hit is just one aspect of the convention centre costs. The other shoe has yet to drop, and that’s the operational costs of the convention centre. We’ll begin to get some indication of the real costs (as opposed to the bogus projected costs trotted out to sell the convention centre) when budget documents come out this summer, but even then, the full costing will be hidden until 2019, after the new convention centre has operated for a full year.
These increased costs will have two components. One is simply how much it costs to run the facility itself. This will undoubtedly be much larger than the $650,000 annual bill we were promised. It wouldn’t surprise me if it doubles or triples. But by far the larger component will be the “incentives” paid to event organizers to hold their conventions in Halifax. No matter what that figure is, it will be large, but it could very well be huge. I shudder to even think about it.
Ten years out, we could be talking total convention centre costs and revenue shortfalls that are on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars more than projected.
It’s the potential and likely fiscal black hole of the convention centre that caused CAO Jacques Dubé to warn against using this year’s $15 million surplus for purposes of next year’s operational costs.
In other words: You’re already getting a tax increase because of the convention centre.
2. Fish farms
“The federal government has not adequately managed risks associated with salmon farming, putting wild species in danger, says Canada’s environment commissioner,” reports Andrea Gunn for the Chronicle Herald:
Salmon aquaculture is a $1-billion industry in Canada, which is the fourth largest producer of farmed salmon in the world.
A new report produced by Julie Gelfand, Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, found that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has no national standard for nets and other equipment to prevent escapes, nor has it set limits on the amount of drugs and pesticides fish farms can use to treat diseases.
Gelfand’s office found the department had not completed risk assessments for key known diseases, was not addressing new and emerging diseases, was not adequately enforcing regulations aimed at minimizing harm to wild fish and, most importantly according to Gelfand, was not monitoring the health of wild fish.
Gelfand’s report was limited:
In this audit, we did not examine other finfish, shellfish, or aquatic plant aquaculture. We did not audit the role of Health Canada in regulating drugs and pesticides, or other federal organizations with a role in regulating aquaculture. We also did not examine regulation at the provincial level. We did not examine the safety of farmed fish for human or animal consumption. Farmed fish, like wild fish, are subject to federal regulations and inspections to ensure their safety in this regard. Finally, we did not look at aquaculture in Nova Scotia, because it was recently audited by the Nova Scotia Auditor General, or in Prince Edward Island, which has no net-pen salmon aquaculture.
Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup published his review of the provincial aquaculture industry in June 2015, finding that:
Improvements are needed in how the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture identifies, monitors and manages environmental and other aquaculture-related risks. The Department issued aquaculture licenses, leases and renewals in compliance with applicable legislation, regulations and policies. However, weaknesses in its processes and information systems impact its ability to identify risks and efficiently and effectively manage and monitor the industry. The Department’s ability to enforce environmental monitoring compliance is limited and detailed guidance in carrying out environmental monitoring audit procedures is needed. The Department provides fish health veterinary services and responds to emergencies in a timely manner. However, with no provincial regulatory requirement, the Department may not always be aware when a site has a disease outbreak or if it is being appropriately managed.
3. Police resource review
The city this morning issued a tender offer for a “police resource review“:
The objective of the Police Resource Review is to provide the Halifax Regional Police, the Halifax Detachment of the RCMP, and the Board of Halifax Police Commissioners, with a clear evaluation, including suggestions and recommendations to:
- Create service effectiveness and efficiencies;
- Address resourcing constraints and opportunities;
- Identify and provide recommendations to close service gaps;
- Identify new equipment or technology to enhance service delivery;
- Outline areas where there is potential for savings or cost avoidance; and
- Engage all levels of the service in the change process.
Where recommendations are made for any of the above, identify constraints/risks, and provide recommended implementation strategies. The service review should provide a comparison between the current policing approaches, and other potential service delivery options, as well as an examination of provincial and national comparators.
The document goes on to explain that “the proposed work is not an audit of the Halifax Regional Policing agencies or the police resourcing model. It does not include a review of the quality of policing or the delivery model of policing currently in place” — in other words, it will not reopen the proposal to remove the RCMP from policing suburban and rural areas.
4. Francis Drouin
“A woman who says she was sexually assaulted at a Halifax bar is speaking out about the alleged incident, while the Liberal MP who has been accused is calling it a case of mistaken identity,” reports Laura Brown for CTV:
The woman says she was at the Halifax Alehouse with some friends around 3 a.m. Saturday when she felt more than one hand grab her buttocks.
“The minute that the assault took place, I whipped around to confront those individuals. As I did that, they pointed out somebody that was beside me, not behind me,” says the woman, who asked not to be identified due to concerns that it could affect her employment.
She says the incident left her feeling violated.
“I didn’t know who he was. He was wearing a delegate tag so I tried to get a snap shot of his tag so I couldn’t forget who he was,” she explains. “So when I tried to get his identity, he hid his tag from me and began to get very irritated.”
She says she started taking a video when someone tried to take her phone away, but she managed to snap some photos and video before leaving the bar. When she got home, she phoned police.
“I was scared to at first. I have a career. I don’t want my life to be over,” she says. “I would like to see full accountability be dealt to all the individuals. This is not a small little butt-grab situation. There’s a lot more to it.”
The next day, we learned through several news reports that the alleged groper was Liberal MP Francis Drouin.
Yesterday afternoon, Drouin issued a statement via Twitter:
On Saturday morning in Halifax, I arrived at approximately 1:00 am at an establishment and joined a group of friends. We chatted amongst ourselves, and then proceeded to the bar to buy a round of drinks. While I was standing facing the bar, with my credit card in hand, I heard what I believed to be a woman’s voice coming from another area of the establishment behind me, yelling that her buttocks had been grabbed. Her comments were clearly not directed at me. I turned away from the bar, and shouted, “get that man out of here” to draw attention to the alleged incident. I truned back to the bar and paid for the drinks with my credit card. After purchasing the drinks, I proceeded with my friends to another area of the establishment. Several minutes later, while standing with a group of people, I was approached by a woman with a cellphone in hand, who mistakenly attempted to connect me with the alleged incident. We told her that she was mistaken.
We left the establishment shortly thereafter. On Saturday, I proactively informed the PMO and the Whip’s office of the alleged incident.
The police have been gathering multiple witness statements and I have been cooperating fully. As I have already said, I believe that it is important for individuals to have a safe environment to come forward and be supported. I am confident that the facts of the issue will lead to a clear outcome.
As I noted Monday, there is little doubt that the entire night was captured on video from a number of angles, so we’ll know soon enough.
Brittany Bernard and Paige Fitzpatrick were apparently drugged at the Toothy Moose. As Bernard has posted on Facebook:
So as some of you may know Saturday night Paige and I made last minute plans to go down town for some drinks and dancing! We had a great start to our night until someone bought Paige a drink that we shared because he had knocked mine out of my hand… we realized within minutes after we drank it that we had been DRUGGED… we ended up falling in the middle of the dance floor, spent an hour puking in the bathroom and somehow managed to call my mom to come get us. We told a bouncer what happened and he brought us to my mom and she took us straight to the hospital. I was lucky enough to come around quicker than Paige did because of my adrenaline rush from seeing how bad she was.. needless to say after spending 4 and a half hours at the QE11 we are both very lucky and grateful with the outcome of how the night ended because it could have been so much worse. We’re trying to look at it on a more positive side and potentially saved another person from going through the same thing but they might have not been as lucky to get help…. We are very grateful for my mom and the bouncer for getting us to a safe place.. PLEASE be careful when out drinking and partying because you NEVER know what can happen… I am one of THE MOST cautious people when it comes to these things as my mom has always taught me that way…. you can never be too careful, we are sharing our story in hopes it will encourage people to be extra careful with their drinks at any bar or party…
EDIT: We have filed a police report and will be getting updates soon!
SECOND EDIT: This was also a small built white male who did this. This can happen to anyone BY anyone…. big or small, male or female.
Police are involved and, once again, are hopefully looking at video from the bar.
The name of the dog-awful corporation that is buying naming rights to the Dartmouth Sportsplex is still secret, but yesterday Halifax council
agreed to the deal in principle deferred approving it until a later date (thanks to Zane Woodford for the correction). Staff will conduct final negotiations.
“Two Dalhousie University philosophers are among 17 academics who have joined a legal battle to help a pair of chimpanzees in New York state gain a status of personhood,” reports Stuart Peddle for the Chronicle Herald under the unfortunate and inaccurate headline “Dal philosophers join push to recognize chimpanzees as people” — there’s a wide chasm between recognizing apes’ “personhood” and saying they are “people.” Peddle continues:
Andrew Fenton and Letitia Meynell, together with a group of colleagues from universities across the U.S., penned an amicus brief to point out inconsistencies in how the courts perceive animals like the great apes.
The case deals with Kiko and Tommy, two male chimpanzees being held by their respective owners without contact with other chimpanzees. Tommy is owned by Diane and Patrick Labery in Gloversville, N.Y. Kiko is in Niagara Falls, N.Y., with owners Carmen and Christie Presti.
Members of the Nonhuman Rights Project, an international advocacy group for the rights of apes, elephants, whales and dolphins, have been trying since 2013 to get Kiko and Tommy released to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida.
“Unfortunately, animal welfare laws are such that the folks that own them and held them alone are not breaking any … laws,” Fenton says.
“The thing that the Nonhuman Rights Project were thinking would be most effective would be using the common law instrument of habeas corpus to argue that they are being unlawfully detained or confined and have them released, albeit to an adequate chimpanzee sanctuary.”
I’m all for granting apes (and the environment generally) legal rights. But who knows where this might end…
Community Design Advisory Committee (Wednesday, 11:30am, City Hall) — discussion of issues that appear to be related to the proposed Centre Plan, although the agenda doesn’t come right out and say that.
Heritage Advisory Committee (Wednesday, 3pm, City Hall) — the committee is considering the Narrows Public House, which I wrote about yesterday.
No public meetings.
Public Accounts (Wednesday, 9am, Province House) — deputy Health minister Denise Perret and Health Authority CEO Janet Knox will be asked about the Mental Health Strategy.
No public meetings.
Harmony and Hope, a Concert for Cancer Research (Wednesday, 7:30pm, Faith Tabernacle, Halifax) — featuring Erin Costello, Dalhousie Health Professions Chorale, and the Bedford Brass Quintet. Tickets are $20/$30; buy them here.
No public events for the rest of the week.
Wrath: Moral Grandstanding and Self-Righteous Anger (Thursday, 7pm, Halifax Central Library) — Justin Tosi from Georgetown University will talk about the rise of intolerance and various related issues.
In the harbour
6am: ZIM Alabama, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain
Noon: Scotian Sea, supply vessel, moves from Pier 9 to Old Coast Guard Base
1pm: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at Pier 36 from St. John’s
I’ll be on The Sheldon MacLeod Show, News 95.7, at 2pm.