A Halifax councillor’s proposal to stock all municipal facilities with free menstrual products is a step closer to reality, but she’s not happy with the way the program is being budgeted.
Council’s budget committee met on Wednesday to consider operating budgets for three municipal business units — Halifax Transit, corporate and customer services, and Halifax Public Libraries.
As part of the budget process, the director of each business unit presents their plan for the next year to the committee and most include options above their approved budget amount for councillors’ consideration. If councillors deem those options worthy of their consideration, they send them forward to their budget adjustment list, commonly known as the parking lot, for a final decision next month.
Corporate and customer services, which includes facilities management, communications, and 311, among other services, came to the committee on Wednesday with a proposal to add 3.1 full-time equivalent positions to the communications department — resulting in a budget increase of $267,600 — already pre-approved by chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé.
But a proposal to spend $369,820 to equip washrooms in every municipal facility with pads and tampons is presented as an option.
“To see it here, I must say, I was surprised,” Coun. Lorelei Nicoll said on Wednesday.
“The way it’s presented to council is that this is going to be an ‘over’ item that’s going to have an impact on the tax rate, and yet three new staff people is not.”
The idea was last before council in October. Responding to a request for a report from Nicoll, municipal staff came back with a proposal to stock menstrual products in 16 facilities for a year. Councillors decided they’d prefer to outfit every facility and to do so permanently. But they deferred a final vote on the matter pending a staff report on the true costs.
Nicoll said she felt like council had given clear direction that staff were to find a way to pay for the project.
“The conversation we had here was that menstrual products are a basic need, just like toilet paper,” Nicoll said. “Do I start looking at your toilet paper budget and take some of it out?”
Corporate and customer services director Jerry Blackwood said the new communications positions are “based on business requirements,” and they were brought to Dubé for approval. The menstrual products, which he called “a significant line item,” were presented as an option because council has yet to identify a funding source.
Nicoll’s colleagues agreed with her, with Deputy Mayor Lisa Blackburn arguing that the department could’ve included the menstrual products and still hit its budget target.
“I just don’t think it sends a really good message to have us now go back again and fight for something that we already fought for and already had the discussion,” Blackburn said.
“We have never once sat here and debated the cost of toilet paper in any of our facilities.”
Councillors also took issue with the numbers budgeted for the project, as they did during the last debate. Municipal staff budgeted thousands for the installation of metal dispensers for pads and tampons when councillors argued a basket on the bathroom counter would do.
After her budget presentation later in the day, Halifax Public Libraries chief librarian and CEO Åsa Kachan told council about the libraries’ experience stocking every washroom with the products.
“We did it in a really low-tech way. It was a little bin and a sign to say, ‘Take one if you need it or somebody you know needs it.
“What’s been interesting is we actually have not had very high expenses. Over the course of the last year, it was a very, almost negligible expense.”
Kachan said it costs about $9,000 annually to stock the libraries’ 14 branches. She said there was a worry initially that people would take the whole basket of pads or tampons, but that hasn’t happened.
“It’s been a good experience, and pretty well immaterial from a budget perspective,” she said.
Councillors passed the menstrual products motion into the budget parking lot, and also added an ‘under’ item, proposing to take the $267,600 for new communications positions out of the budget.
They also passed the proposed Halifax Transit budget, which came with no options.
The libraries budget came with one option: $50,000 for programming to reduce isolation in the community with gatherings and snacks. That program was a casualty of last year’s much tighter budget season. Councillors also added an undefined option to the libraries budget aimed at increasing its collection.
Council’s budget committee will debate the budget adjustment list, or parking lot, next month, determining the final tax increase.
It voted earlier this month to aim for a 1.5% increase to the average property tax bill.