Halifax City Hall in August 2020. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Halifax councillors wrapped up their budget process on Thursday, adding even more money to the police budget, reducing blue bag pickup to biweekly, and cutting the tax rate to raise the average property tax bill by 1%.

They won’t finalize the 2021-2022 budget until next month, but during a two-day meeting of council’s budget committee this week, councillors added about $11 million to it. As we reported on Wednesday, councillors added $85,000 to the police budget to study body-worn cameras, along with 11 other items, totalling $5.9 million.

On Thursday, they added even more to the Halifax Regional Police budget: Coun. Sam Austin moved to include $60,000 for a training course called Journey to Change and $85,800 for court dispositions clerk. The training money passed unanimously, and the money for the clerk passed with Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit, and councillors Trish Purdy, Patty Cuttell, Pam Lovelace, Paul Russell, and Cathy Deagle-Gammon voting no.

In total, councillors added $230,800 to the police budget this week. That budget now totals $88,810,800 — an increase of 2.9% over HRP’s 2020-2021 COVID-19 budget (it was $88.9 million in 2019-2020).

Councillors also removed money from the budget, opting to limit blue bag pickup to once every two weeks. That’s the status quo in some rural and suburban areas, but urban HRM is accustomed to weekly blue bag pickup. Coun. Waye Mason put the motion on the table. It saves the city $308,500 in 2021-2022, but that number increases to $850,000 in 2022-2023.

Coun. Becky Kent argued the change would inconvenience residents and increase rodent concerns, but the motion passed 9-8, with Outhit and councillors Iona Stoddard, Lisa Blackburn, Cuttell, Russell, Deagle-Gammon, Kent, and Purdy voting no.

Green bin pickup will be weekly this summer, as it usually is. It was cut to biweekly last summer due to COVID-19, and councillors considered doing so again.

Here’s everything added Wednesday and Thursday, totalling $10,970,550, net:

  • $56,000 to double the budget for councillor mail-outs
  • $72,500 for an Anti-Black Racism strategy
  • $446,000 to increase tax relied for housing non-profits, from 25% to 50%
  • $71,100 for an IT expert for an audit of Halifax Water
  • $85,800 for HRP’s court dispositions clerk
  • $60,000 for HRP’s training course
  • $85,000 for HRP’s body-worn cameras term position
  • $100,000 for e-books at Halifax Public Libraries
  • $50,000 for food programming at Halifax Public Libraries
  • $2,000,000 for faster snow-clearing at Halifax Transit stops (24 vs. 48 hours)
  • $1,000,000  for more traffic calming
  • $400,000 for title searches related to non-accepted streets
  • $250,000 for Discover Halifax’s Integrated Tourism Master Plan
  • $750,000 COVID economic recovery events grants
  • $1,757,350 in funding for multi-district recreation facilities
  • $125,000 for public art at Queen’s Marque
  • $150,000 for e-coli analysis on First Lake
  • $250,000 for heritage grants
  • $1,315,000 for 75% completion of the urban forestry plan
  • $805,300 for 10 positions in planning and development
  • $115,000 for household special waste events
  • -$308,500 for bi-weekly blue bag pickup
  • $85,000 for the Multi Service Youth Centre in Lower Sackville
  • $1,250,000 for the CAO’s Resource Funding Plan, which means hiring 15 people

After completing that list, Mayor Mike Savage moved to limit the increase to average residential property tax bills to 1%.

The plan in January was to increase the average tax bill by 1.9%. That number is based on the average residential assessment of $250,400, and a 1.9% increase would mean an extra $38 on the average bill, which was $2,015 in 2020-2021 (not including transit taxes, area rates, fire hydrant rates and provincial fees).

Circumstances have changed since January. Due to the city’s hot housing market, driven by COVID-19-induced interprovincial migration, the municipality is bringing in more deed transfer tax — 1.5% charged to the buyer of any property. That, along with aid from other levels of government, has contributed to a surplus projected to be $34 million. The municipality’s finance people have also decided to budget for more deed transfer tax in the next few years, including an extra $13.5 million in 2021-2022.

Councillors were able to fund the entire budget adjustment list above using that deed transfer tax revenue, and staff recommended they could use it to bring the average property tax increase to 1.5%. Savage moved to dip into the surplus money for $2.8 million to further lower the tax increase.

Note: the following is reporter math.

A 1% increase means an extra $20.15 increase to the average residential property bill. It also means a cut to the tax rate, from 0.815% to 0.813%.

Cutting the tax rate still raises bills because taxes are based on property assessments, which are adjusted annually, although they’re capped. Taxable (capped) assessments are rising 1.3% for 2021-2022, according to the municipality (the source for the basis of all these numbers). That means if the tax rate were left alone, the average bill would rise 1.3%.

On the commercial side, a 1% increase to the average bill drops the tax rate from 3% in 2020-2021 to 2.952% in 2021-2022. The average bill would increase $428.34, to $43,262.34.

Savage’s motion passed, with councillors Kathryn Morse, Austin, and Mason voting no. Austin cited concerns about using one-time money (the surplus) to fund ongoing expenses.

The committee voted on Thursday to send staff away to complete and package the budget, and council is scheduled to rubber stamp the document on May 4.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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