Halifax didn’t bother to submit a claim for the money it spent cleaning up after Hurricane Dorian in 2019, municipal staff revealed in a meeting on Wednesday.
Council’s Audit and Finance Standing Committee met virtually on Wednesday to discuss the $20.5 million HRM has spent on Hurricane Fiona, the Tantallon wildfire, and flooding in Bedford.
As the Halifax Examiner reported on Tuesday, the municipality expects to recoup most of that money, but it’s going to take a while.
Mayor Mike Savage told the Examiner the other levels of government should act faster to make Halifax whole, and he reiterated those comments during Wednesday’s meeting.
Chief financial officer Jerry Blackwood told councillors the municipality will get the money, but it will be a while.
“There’s a good level of assurance that we will receive that money,” Blackwood said. “It’s just that it’ll be four, five, six years out.”
No money for Dorian
Blackwood said the municipality hasn’t been paid for Dorian, which hit the province in 2019. Later, he revealed that’s because HRM didn’t bother submitting a claim to the provincial Disaster Financial Assistance program.
“We didn’t submit a claim for Dorian based on the expenses that we absorbed for that storm,” Blackwood said.
Blackwood said the municipality had expenses, but leadership at the time decided not to submit a claim.
“I think it was looked at from a cost-benefit point of view,” Blackwood said. “It’s a fair amount of work to gather all those costs and then submit, and then the timeline involved.”
Jacques Dubé was the chief administrative officer at the time, and Jane Fraser was the chief financial officer.
Councillors were dumbfounded by the revelation.
“I wasn’t aware of that. I’m surprised,” Savage said.
Current chief financial officer Cathie O’Toole said she’d bring the committee an information report on the lack of a Dorian claim.
“Of course, Jerry was not the CFO and I was not the CAO then, so we don’t really have the answer for you today,” O’Toole said.
It’s unclear what the storm cost HRM, and those figures are expected to be in the coming report.
Pricey fencing questioned
Coun. Paul Russell, chair of the committee, asked about the $11 million HRM spent on fencing in the wake of the wildfire.
“I’m having a hard time resolving that,” Russell said. “If I look at the number of houses that burned down and the protections we have to give for those houses, that math is hard to justify.”
O’Toole said the fire department and emergency management office determined the municipality needed to fence off every fire-damaged property before it could lift its evacuation order.
“I would view the fencing as a benefit to all of the evacuated residences versus necessarily a benefit that’s solely for the benefit of the property owner,” O’Toole said.
As a “frugal accountant,” O’Toole said she asked about using cheaper alternatives like snow fences.
“But from a safety perspective, the direction was, ‘No, we need to do chainlink fencing.'”
O’Toole conceded that the method used to procure the fencing might’ve been flawed.
“In retrospect, one of the lessons learned — you know, we’ve never had to do this before — not sure going to standing offer for fencing is the best route we could do, but it was the only route available to us at the time,” O’Toole said.
Councillors adopted the staff recommendation to move $15 million from one capital reserve to the municipality’s Risk and Resiliency Reserve.
Blackwood said it’s “a bit of a cashflow and accounting exercise,” and councillors should be assured that staff “are working behind the scenes to ensure we have the proper reporting mechanisms and controls in place to be able to put together a quality claim.”
Council as a whole will have final say.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, staff told councillors they’re projecting a $12.3-million deficit as of the end of the first quarter of fiscal 2023-2024.
They attributed $10 million to lower-than-budgeted deed transfer tax revenues due to a decrease in the real estate market.
Another $2.3 million is attributed to the wildfire.