Building permit fees are going up 25% on April 1.
Halifax regional councillors voted for the increase, which will bring in an additional $1.45 million in annual revenue for the municipality, during a budget committee meeting on Friday. The motion passed unanimously.
Kelly Denty, executive director of Planning and Development at HRM, brought the idea forward to councillors as an option to raise some extra revenue for 2023-2024. Councillors have been looking to a long list of those options to lower the coming increase to the average tax bill.
“Building permit fees haven’t been adjusted in 25 years, one of the things we did just after amalgamation and left them,” Denty told councillors.
Compared to other cities, HRM’s fees are among the lowest, Denty said, and well below the median.
The fees are outlined in 1997’s Bylaw F-200, Respecting Fees for Permits and Licences. For buildings with more than four units, the fee is $5.50 per $1,000 of estimated value. That fee will rise to $6.90, Denty said.
“If we had done a Consumer Price Index change from ’97 to now, the charge would be $9.30 per $1,000,” Denty said, adding $8 is a mid-range fee across the country.
Denty said the increase would add a few hundred dollars to the cost of each unit in a multi-unit building.
The bylaw also includes fees for buildings four units and under, including home renovations or garages. Those will rise 25%, along with every other fee in the bylaw.
Coun. Pam Lovelace moved to consider raising the fees.
“Wow, it’s been a long time since we’ve actually taken a good look at that,” Lovelace said.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn said developers would have a hard time questioning the hike.
“I would think that this fee is probably the only expense they have that hasn’t increased since 1997. For that reason alone, I support this,” she said.
Potential interference from the provincial government
But Blackburn, without naming him, questioned whether Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr would agree.
The provincial government’s Bill 225 gives Lohr veto power over any municipal bylaw that “would impact housing or development.”
Denty told councillors she already raised the idea of the hike with the chair of Lohr’s housing task force.
“In terms of our discussion, it’s not a barrier,” she said.
Coun. Lindell Smith asked whether HRM should have a back-up plan in case Lohr nullifies their bylaw amendment.
“I think any action by the province is speculative,” Denty said. “I think folks would have to be hard pressed to suggest that raising it … just to bring it in line with the cost of living a little bit more, is a barrier.”
Mayor Mike Savage asked explicitly, would this fee hike deter development?
“I don’t think it’s significant enough that it’s going to make that big of a dent in the overall process,” Denty said.
Councillors originally planned to put the cut on the budget adjustment list for consideration later in the budget process. But they decided to move right to directing Denty to budget for it.
Amendments to Bylaw F-200 will come back to council for first and second reading before becoming law.
Considering extra consultant cash
Councillors also voted on Friday to consider adding $450,000 to the budget for consultants to work on suburban and rural planning.
Denty brought that proposal forward as two options over budget: $250,000 for a consultant to work on “Suburban Structure and Community Engagement,” and $200,000 for a consultant to work on “Rural Structure and Community Engagement.”
Those consultants would work toward creating suburban and rural plans, like the Centre Plan for the rest of the municipality. Those communities are still operating mostly under decades-old planning rules.
Denty told councillors she could use the consultants to move those projects ahead more quickly.
Councillors also added $276,200 to the budget adjustment list for three new planners to work on “Community Action Planning for African Nova Scotian Communities.” And they added $120,360 for two new building officials to work on the proactive building inspections contemplated in the new rental registry.
Council approved the rest of Denty’s base budget of $14.5 million, a 21.9% increase over last year. That figure will drop to $13 million with the inclusion of the building permit fee increase.
Organizations ask council not to cut arts funding
Also on Friday, councillors heard from more than two dozen people opposed to cuts to arts and culture funding.
The cuts are included in the list of budget options from staff. The arts and culture cuts are in the Parks and Recreation budget, which was on Friday’s agenda. None of those cuts has been adopted.
“If our $100,000 a year was cut, this would be not just like a significant loss to the Dartmouth Heritage Museum,” museum board member David Jones told councillors.
“It would no longer exist.”
Jones said that money pays for two full-time staffers. One of them is manager-curator Joanne Pepers.
“What will happen if we lose this $100,000 operating grant? Aside from the heritage and educational losses and the closure of both Evergreen House and Quaker House? There are human losses. We’ll lose our jobs,” Pepers told councillors.
Also on the list is a cut of $300,000 to professional arts grants. In 2022-2023, that budget line was $560,000.
“The mere thought that municipal funding towards the arts can be cut at all, let alone cut in half, is sure enough to send us into a bit of a panic,” Sébastien Labelle, executive director of the Bus Stop Theatre Cooperative, told councillors.
“Art is not a luxury. Art is a daily expression of love for our community. It’s what makes it worth living where you live. Let’s dream big together. Let’s make HRM a beacon example of what it’s like to live in a city that is loved.”
Debate on the Parks and Recreation budget is scheduled for Wednesday, when Friday’s meeting continues after adjournment.