Expect a long and quarrelsome council meeting this Tuesday. The meeting starts at 10am, but there are so many weighty and controversial issues on the agenda that it will likely go well into the evening, and council may possibly have to reconvene on Wednesday to complete its work.
I’ll discuss four issues here: proposed changes in our waste collection system and at the landfill; the “five-year review” of the regional plan, nearly eight years after the plan was adopted; selling naming rights to the Metro Centre; and the proposed closure of the dog park at Africville Park.
Breaking Halifax’s Solid Waste System
Staff is recommending a series of changes in how the solid waste system operates. Most of these changes are relatively non-controversial, although some residents will object to policies requiring clear garbage bags and a ban on putting grass clippings in green bins. (Other minor changes include the required use of “kraft” paper bags for yard waste and putting box board in blue bags, instead of solely in green bins.)
But there are two game-changing proposals. Staff—and by staff, I mean CAO Richard Butts, who has championed the changes—wants to extend the life of the landfill by building it 15 metres higher than previously planned, and to allow “institutional waste”—garbage collected from businesses—to be sent to landfills outside HRM. Both proposals are contrary to policies adopted when the Otter Lake landfill was established in the mid-1990s, and the extension of the life of the landfill is a betrayal of nearby residents, who were promised the landfill would close in 2024 and who have made life decisions like buying and improving property based on that promise.
These issues have been discussed in other media at length for the last couple of years, so I won’t rehash all that here. I do, however, want to point at the issue not being discussed: the gigantic profit involved in the landfill, no matter what council decides Tuesday.
The landfill is operated by Mirror Nova Scotia, a firm associated with Dexter Construction, which wins the bulk of road building and paving contracts in HRM. In 2011, the city signed a 14-year contract with Mirror to operate the landfill through what was projected to be the landfill’s closure in 2025. That contract was conservatively valued at $392,780,000, and included a 20 percent annual profit margin. Yes, you read that right: Mirror is guaranteed a 20 percent profit.
Butts himself started his career in the garbage industry, first at Laidlaw Waste Systems and then as a vice president at Waste Management. In 1998 he went to work for the city of Toronto, instituting that city’s plan to ship garbage to Michigan and then, when the state of Michigan greatly increased its landfill tipping fees, to takeover an existing landfill in Ontario and repurpose it for the city. (He was one of three city managers who left Toronto right after the election of Rob Ford as mayor, although he told me at the time Ford’s election had nothing to do with the decision.)
In short, Butts knows garbage. He knows about shipping garbage, he knows about landfills, and he knows about the corporate side of the industry. Arguably, we want someone with deep experience to be guiding the decision-making process, but the giant money involved, his close ties to the industry, and one dominant player locally makes me, for one, extremely uncomfortable.
The financing and decision-making around the landfill should be examined by the auditor general.
The Regional Plan Review
The “five-year review” of the regional plan has been repeatedly delayed, first by staff inaction, then by a desire by councillors to avoid political fall-out from the revision during the 2012 elections, and lastly by an attempt by some councillors to gut the sprawl-restraining features of the proposed revisions.
Specifically, there was a last-minute move by councillor Stephen Adams to get the Purcells Cove backlands rezoned from “urban reserve”—which prevents any development for the 25-year lifespan of the plan—to “rural commuter,” opening the area up to immediate low- to medium-density development.
I watched Adams introduce the proposal at council, and I saw a handful of other councillors put forward other proposed changes (albeit less dramatic) at about the same time, and I couldn’t help but think there was some back room deal-making in the works. But maybe not. Maybe there’s a collection of councillors who really do think that after thousands of citizens participated in the review process over three years, and after scores of meetings in which details and compromises were hammered out, it’s perfectly OK to at the very last minute put forward changes that potentially benefit some of the largest development companies in town, and all of these last minute changes were proposed independently but coincidently. Maybe.
A few weeks ago, council defeated the proposal on a tie vote (ties are a defeat) because councillor Linda Mosher, who supports Adams’ proposed changes for the Purcells Cove backlands, was absent, away on city business. I think we’ll probably see some attempt to revisit the issue, but I don’t think the proponents can muster the necessary votes for a motion of reconsideration.
Naming Rights for Metro Centre
Here we go again. I know I’m on the losing side of this argument. In fact, it’s not even an argument: overwhelmingly, people see nothing wrong in selling naming rights to municipally owned facilities. This time around it’s the Metro Centre, which has operated profitably (we’re told) since 1982 without having the logo of some corporation plastered on it, but now there’s an urgent need to sell naming rights to the facility in order to offset $5 million in renovations.
I’ve found that many people can’t even understand my objection to selling naming rights. “Why would we turn down corporate money?” they ask. Or, “anything to lower taxes.”
Look, when cities sell naming rights to their facilities, they are advancing a pro-corporate agenda that also includes lowering corporate taxes, decreasing regulation and otherwise positioning corporations as upstanding institutions not to be questioned. It used to be that corporations could rightly claim to contribute to the common good by, you know, paying high taxes, which were then allocated for all sorts of good purposes, including funding recreational facilities. But over the past few decades we’ve re-worked the equation. Government is now “bad,” taxes are “bad,” while companies are “good corporate citizens” simply through the miracle of the free market, and buying advertising, which is what naming rights are, is seen as benevolence. It’s not. It’s a business decision, and more importantly, a part of shoving the collective mindset of the public into simply accepting corporate dominance without question.
Like I said, I know I’ll lose this argument. But at the very least can we demand value for money? Of course the proposed Metro Centre deal will be made in secret, and only made public after the agreement is signed some time in the future, but if history is any guide, the details will suck. The four-pad arena in Bedford cost city taxpayers $50 million. Naming rights were sold to BMO for $100,000. A similar rotten deal was made for The Oval with Emera. We’re being played for chumps in these deals.
Africville Dog Park
Sadly, dog walkers have collected hundreds of signatures on a petition against the decommissioning of the Africville dog park.
Most dog owners I know are for closing the park to dogs, but there’s a segment of dog owners who can’t see beyond their own love for their companions. I implore them to reconsider.
Perhaps some white people don’t understand the profound distaste in the black community for dogs running free in Africville. I’m told that there are informal, unrecorded graves at Africville, and the symbolism of free running dogs crapping on the graves is especially distasteful. We don’t allow dogs in our formal cemeteries, for exactly that reason.
The spoken word artist Izrael gives voice to the sentiment in this video, from 2008.:
Moreover, there’s a simple solution to the conflict. The Seaview Lookoff Park, just across the MacKay Bridge approach road and up the hill, is already completely fenced in and affords spectacular views of the Bedford Harbour. The dirt road that reaches into Seaview Lookoff Park starts nearly beneath the bridge, on Barrington Street. With minimal cost, the city could make small improvements to the road, provide a bit of parking, and designate Seaview Lookoff as a dog park, satisfying both dog walkers and the former residents of Africville.