With a cut on the table, Halifax regional councillors have chosen to consider increasing arts funding instead.
Council’s budget committee met on Wednesday to debate the $34.9-million Parks and Recreation budget.
Executive director Maggie MacDonald tabled a list of options for councillors to consider, including a deep cut to arts funding: $300,000 from a professional arts grants budget of $560,000.
On Friday, councillors heard from 36 people opposed to that and other proposed cuts. Those speakers, along with a coordinated email campaign, clearly got through to them.
Coun. Waye Mason brought forward a motion to consider increasing the total value of professional arts grants by $125,000 in 2023-2024, and by another $125,000 the year after.
“We are below the national average. The province is not increasing funding. It’s a tragedy that’s happening in real time,” Mason said.
According to the briefing note to council on the proposed cut, there’s much more demand for the program than its budget allows.
“This program is currently oversubscribed by 51%, with requested funding at $1,155,829 compared to the actual funding envelope at $560,000,” the note said.
Mason said the municipality needs to consider boosting the funding even further to match the national average. He suggested it should be up to $5 million.
The ‘vibe and the feel of a city’
Mayor Mike Savage was in favour of the addition to the budget adjustment list.
“There’s the money aspect of what investing in arts does for our community, which is really important, but what’s more important is the vibe and the feel of a city and the way we look at ourselves and the way that we are reflected through the arts,” Savage said.
While Coun. Trish Purdy spoke fondly of her time in the drama club as a teen, she didn’t support the increase.
“I’m not going to be able to support this motion,” Purdy said, “although I do wholeheartedly agree that we should not cut to the arts because it is very important for kids who were like me, so shy, and it’s just a great opportunity and the atmosphere of acceptance and support is awesome.”
Purdy said she’d support a lesser amount. Coun. David Hendsbee attempted to amend the amount down to $50,000, but Mason didn’t agree to the change.
Mason’s motion passed 13-3, with Purdy, Hendsbee, and Coun. Paul Russell voting no.
Stephanie Domet, co-executive director of the AfterWords Literary Festival and a member of the Greater Halifax Arts Coalition, said the vote felt “really terrific.”
“They were listening,” Domet said in an interview.
“We know they get it. We know they know how important the arts are. And we know that there’s a lot of pressure on them to come up with a budget that can handle everything they’re being asked to handle. And it felt really great to listen to that conversation and to see 13 of them vote in favour of increasing the funding to where it really ought to be.”
No cut, but no increase for Dartmouth museum
Several of the speakers on Friday asked councillors not to cut the $100,000 grant to the Dartmouth Heritage Museum.
Manager-curator Joanne Pepers told councillors she’d lose her job if the grant was cut.
“If our $100,000 a year was cut, this would be not just like a significant loss to the Dartmouth Heritage Museum,” board member David Jones told councillors.
“It would no longer exist.”
Savage spoke in favour of keeping the museum’s funding intact, speaking about his memories of the former Dartmouth museum as a child.
Coun. Becky Kent went a step further, and moved to consider increasing the museum’s grant by $50,000.
The vote on Kent’s motion was 8-8. A tie vote, under council’s rules of order, is a no. Hendsbee, Kent, Deputy Mayor Austin, Mason, Coun. Kathryn Morse, Coun. Iona Stoddard, Coun. Pam Lovelace, and Savage voted yes.
[Insert name of bank here] Pool
Councillors will consider selling naming rights to the new pool on the Halifax Common.
The new pool and splash pad is being built with $18 million in public money.
Staff brought the naming rights option forward on their list with potential revenue of $100,000 annually.
MacDonald told councillors that if any potential sponsors are listening, that number is a floor, not a ceiling.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn put the motion on the floor, saying she doesn’t have a problem with it “philosophically.”
Savage supported the idea, but said HRM should try to get more out of these naming rights deals.
Other cuts still on the table
While the arts grants were spared, councillors did vote to consider other cuts.
There was a $600,000 cut on the table to the Grand Oasis and Dartmouth Sunshine Summer Series concert events. Those were brought in as part of the municipality’s response to the pandemic, and MacDonald told councillors funding from the other levels of government and private sponsors had dropped off.
Coun. Shawn Cleary moved to cut the entire $600,000, but Coun. Lindell Smith proposed a cut of $400,000 instead. That passed, and municipal staff will come back to the budget committee with an outline of what they can do with the remaining $200,000.
Austin moved to cut $50,000 from the budget for mowing grass in the municipal right-of-way. In 2007, council decided to mow the grass between the sidewalk and street in select areas. Councillors voted to add the option to their budget adjustment list. If council approves the cut, HRM will stop cutting.
Relatedly, councillors will consider a $20,000 cut to shrub maintenance in the right-of-way in a handful of cul de sacs in the municipality.
Councillors will also consider adding $500,000 to the budget to expand its Recreation Access Program. The program provides discounted recreation services to people who qualify for HRM’s Affordable Access Program. Coun. Patty Cuttell moved to consider the extra spending.
According to the staff briefing note on the option, uptake on the program has been increasing:
“The value of discounted recreation services (programs/memberships) has grown from $134,945 in 2021 to $692,443 in 2022, thus impacting recreation revenue. Offsetting the lost revenue would help to ensure revenue targets are met and services maintained.”