There’s a list of big potential cuts to city services before Halifax regional councillors, but the process to go through with them has only just begun.
Councillors have set a goal of raising the average tax bill by 4% this year, rather than the staff-recommended 8%. The 4% increase means $86 a year for the average residential property. As the Halifax Examiner reported last week, that 4% hike is a 6% decrease in the actual residential tax rate.
But to get there, councillors need to find $13.5 million in budget reductions — service cuts or revenue increases.
Staff in municipal departments have identified nearly 100 potential budget reductions. Thirty-eight are already built into the budget, totalling $2.9 million. Another 58 are proposed.
For those proposed cuts to go ahead, a councillor has to move for the item to be added to the budget adjustment list, formerly known as the parking lot. Items get parked there for consideration at the end of the budget process.
There’s a vote to add the item to the list, and then another vote to cut it from or add it to the budget.
At every meeting of council’s budget committee there’s an opportunity for the public to speak (in person at city hall) about each department’s proposal. The list of dates and instructions to sign up to speak are here.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s happened so far and what happens next, organized by city department, starting with some of the headlining proposals.
Fare hike and service reductions for Halifax Transit
There are four potential cuts listed for Halifax Transit:
- “Service Reductions Option 1 – Permanent” ($4,162,418 in reduced spending for 2023-2024)
- “Service Reductions Option 2 – Reducing service in February until August. (Apr – Aug Numbers)” ($1,626,500)
- “Cancelling MFTP – Labour/Fuel/Maintenance/Marketing” ($1,650,000)
- “$0.25 Fare Increase” ($847,848)
Halifax Transit is scheduled to present its proposed budget to council on March 1. With the report on its spending plan, it will include briefing notes with more detail on each potential budget reduction.
If approved, fares would increase from $2.75 to $3, youth and senior fares would rise from $2 to $2.25, and presumably there’d be a corresponding increase in ticket and pass prices.
The service reductions are less predictable. Halifax Transit is already running lean, with further route cancellations announced this week amid a dire staff shortage.
Cancelling MFTP, the Moving Forward Together Plan, means cancelling some route changes that were supposed to be implemented in November 2022. They were already delayed due to the staffing shortage.
The municipality didn’t list any budget reductions newly factored into the transit budget.
Career firefighters could be pulled from rural stations
There are three proposed cuts to Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency:
- “Reduction in service outside of the urban core, by eliminating all career staffing (FTEs) at some stations, through attrition” ($947,600 in 2023-2024)
- “Customer billing for HRFE response to Motor Vehicle Collisions on 100 series highways” ($250,000)
- “Grant Reductions” ($141,300)
Like the transit cuts, there will be more information provided to councillors and the public via briefing notes when the fire department comes to the committee, also on March 1.
Fire stations in rural and suburban areas of HRM are staffed with an e-platoon model, a mix of career and volunteer firefighters. The cut would move “some” of those stations to volunteer-only. The move would save a further $2,369,000 in 2024-2025.
HRM doesn’t list any cuts built into the fire budget. Councillors have voted to add a capital budget item to the budget adjustment list to build a new station in West Bedford sooner. Construction is expected to cost $16 million.
Brendan Meagher, president of the Halifax Professional Firefighters Association, spoke to. the budget committee earlier this week. He thanked councillors for their support for the fire service, and asked them to continue building it up.
Big hits to parks and rec proposed, some rejected
There are 22 proposed cuts to the parks and recreation budget. Here are the ones council hasn’t considered already:
- “Remove monitors on all weather fields” ($155,000)
- “Delay hiring two Seasonals for Naturalization Strategy & Coordinator” ($150,000)
- “Mowing changes” ($50,000)
- “Eliminate Partnership with ADCKC Club move the responsibility to canoe clubs to fund course maintenance” ($49,000)
- “Grand Oasis and Dartmouth Sunshine Summer Series” ($600,000)
- “Professional Arts Grants” ($300,000)
- “Discovery Centre Grant” ($145,000)
- “Dartmouth Heritage Museum Society Grant” ($100,000)
- “LDRA (Sackville Arena Lake District) Grant” ($50,000)
- “Charge for usage of the Commons Aquatic Centre” ($100,000)
- “Defer the opening of the Multi Service Youth Centre (MSYC) in Spryfield” ($100,000)
- “Field lining – games only Class AA,A and B field” ($20,000)
- “Shrub bed reduction in ROW and cul-de-sacs Savings in shrub contract” ($20,000)
- “Cut State of Good Repair” ($100,000)
- “Sell the naming of the new Commons Aquatic Centre” ($100,000)
During a budget debate last week, council voted against adding these cuts to the budget adjustment list:
- “Middle Musquodoboit Park – new development Capital” ($600,000)
- “Glen Arbour Way Park – new Ninja Warrior Course” ($75,000)
- “Park Road Park – new development” ($100,000)
- “Bridge Upgrades – Grassy Brook Park” ($150,000)
- “Playing Field Rehabilitation – Gorsebrook Park – sport field (design)” ($100,000)
- “Eastern Passage Common Park – skatepark replacement” ($750,000)
- “Playing Field Rehabilitation – Mount Edward Elementary School Park – ball diamond” ($200,000)
And these 18 cuts or revenue generators are newly built into the budget:
- “Defer PPP forestry Plan maintenance” ($30,000)
- “Students Position Reduction” ($174,000)
- “Increase Vacancy Mgmt. (Parks)” ($100,000)
- “Increase Vacancy Mgmt. (SPD)” ($81,400)
- “Reduce the Uniform budget” ($10,000)
- “Increase programs in Rec Centres to maximize the use of facility spaces” ($14,000)
- “Increase in rentals at the new Pavilion at Commons Aquatic Centre” ($10,000)
- “Increase in rentals at Rec Centres due to the last minute rentals” ($3,000)
- “Rent facilities that currently aren’t rentable” ($10,000)
- “Increase rentals and weddings at the boat club” ($40,000)
- “Investigate having a sponsor for the REC Van” ($10,000)
- “Sackville Sports Stadium naming rights” ($30,000)
- “Introduce alternative food offerings at the Sackville Sports Stadium Café ($2,000)
- “Reduction in Casual staff” ($10,000)
- “Changing how summer overnight camps are operated” ($51,300)
- “Changing how summer overnight camps are operated – increase fees” ($20,000)
- “Outdoor Team Building Packages” ($20,000)
- “Horizon Rec Centre Revenue Revenue” ($24,200)
The Parks and Recreation budget comes to the committee on February 17. There will be a long list of briefing notes, but a few things stand out.
First is the Halifax Common Aquatic Centre. That new pool and splash pad is being built with $18 million in public money. Now staff are proposing to charge a fee for the public to use it, and plaster the name of some bank or monopoly-holding utility company on it. Likewise, staff are now planning to sell naming rights to the Sackville Sports Stadium and potentially the city’s mobile recreation van.
Second is the arts and culture funding: proposed grants cuts to the downtown Halifax and Dartmouth concert series, professional arts grants, the Discovery Centre grant, the Dartmouth Heritage Museum Grant, and more.
Weekly green bin collection on chopping block
There are 13 potential cuts to the Public Works budget. Here are the ones council hasn’t considered already:
- “Increase pay station hourly rates by 25%” ($656,000)
- “Increase commercial tip fees from $90 per tonne to $100 per tonne at HRM Composting Facilities” ($110,000)
- “Eliminate Senior Snow Program” ($600,000)
- “Reduce Transit Stop Snow Clearing Service Level from 24 to 48 hours” ($1,000,000)
- “Increase pay station and ticket revenue by adding Saturday parking @ $2 an hour in Spring Garden, DT Halifax and Dartmouth” ($538,000)
- “Remove residential sidewalk snow clearing from snow contracts” ($6,500,000 in 2024-2025)
- “Eliminate summer (July-Sept) weekly organics collection (maintain bi-weekly service through summer months)” ($900,000)
- “Reduce Household Special Waste Program mobile events from 17 to 11 events (Reduce the 6 events added in 21/22 – 17 to 11 events)” ($150,000)
- “Bulky Item Collection – Bulky items not picked up curbside” ($390,000)
- “Increase right of way permit fees” ($71,000)
Last week, council voted against these potential reductions:
- “Reduce Road Safety Improvement” ($500,000)
- “Extend AAA Bike Network completion by 2 years” ($3,000,000 savings in 2024-2025)
And it voted for a modified version of this cut:
- “Reduce number of trees planted in final year of current Urban Forest Master Plan” ($1,510,000)
Deputy Mayor Sam Austin moved to reduce that budget line by $750,000, leaving $2.5 million in the budget. Councillors skipped the budget adjustment list with that vote and went straight to a cut.
There are also five new Public Works cuts now built into its budget:
- “PW Operating budget reduction” ($200,000)
- “Reduce Solid Waste advertising / promotional budget” ($75,000)
- “Reduce Street Recapitalization” ($80,000)
- “Reduce Stump grinding” ($50,000)
- “Move Curbside Solid Waste coverage from Parking Services to Planning & Development” ($50,000)
The biggest stand-out is the reduction in green bin service reduction. Council routinely uses trash collection, a key municipal service, as a way to play with the budget. In recent years, it’s dialled back weekly green bin collection to July and August, and reduced blue bag collection to biweekly.
A change in the pickup of bulky items would mean people would need to find a way to get their old refrigerators and hot water tanks to the dump.
The proposed increase in parking pay station rates would mean an extra 25 to 75 cents per hour, depending on parking location. And parking on Saturdays, currently free, could cost $2 an hour in downtown areas.
And on the snow-clearing side, the removal of sidewalks from contracts wouldn’t change anything this year, but would next year. The timeline for clearing bus stops was hard won during last year’s budget deliberations, and is arguably another proposed reduction to transit service. The cut of the seniors snow clearing program, where older people can get shovelled out, could mean some end up stranded after snowstorms.
Public Works comes to the budget committee on February 14.
Fewer new books on library shelves
Halifax Public Libraries has already seen its capital budget slashed for 2023-2024, as the Examiner reported last week. Councillors voted to add some of that money back to the budget adjustment list, with specific numbers to come in briefing notes.
There’s one proposed cut to the library on the list:
- “Reduction in Library material purchases (one-time)” ($50,000)
Libraries CEO Åsa Kachan has told council annually that the libraries are falling behind on their collection compared to other cities. Councillors have added purchases to the budget the last two years.
There are three other reductions now built in:
- “Out of town travel (one time)” ($10,000)
- “Staff training, incident defriefing & medical referals (one-time)” ($5,000)
- “Parking revenue (ongoing)” ($10,000)
Kachan brings the library budget to the committee on February 10.
Here are some proposed cuts we haven’t listed yet, and their departments:
- CAO’s office: “Road to Economic Prosperity Action Plan” ($182,500)
- CAO’s office: “Halifax Civic Innovation Outpost” ($260,700)
- Finance and Asset Management: “Admin Fees Area Rates & Private Home owners” ($70,000)
- Finance and Asset Management: “Service Reduction 311” ($75,000)
- Fiscal: “Non-Profit Redesign” ($1,200,000)
- Fiscal: “Tax Agreement HIAA” ($1,000,000 in 2024-2025)
- Fiscal: “Supp Ed Expenditure” ($1,800,000 in 2024-2025)
- Fiscal: “Return Interest on over-due accounts to pre-pandemic rates” ($2,000,000)
- Human Resources and Corporate Communications: “Bridging the Gap Internship” ($700,000)
- Planning and Development: “Increase in Revenue” ($290,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Cleaning Contracts” ($100,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Contract Services” ($50,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Equipment Replacement” ($200,000)
- Halifax Regional Police: “Discontinue Lake Safety Patrol and Lifeguard Services on the waters of Lake Micmac and Lake Banook” ($83,600)
- Halifax Regional Police: “Increase admin. fee built into extra duty rates by 7% from 3% to 10%” ($153,900)
The last two are HRP’s only proposed budget reductions.
Council already voted down one proposed cut last week, to their discretionary funds:
- Fiscal: “District Capital” ($750,000)
And here are the rest of the built-in reductions:
- Finance and Asset Management: “Fee for services” ($200,000)
- Finance and Asset Management: “Positions Changes” ($250,000)
- Finance and Asset Management: “WCCD” ($20,000 in 2024-2025)
- Finance and Asset Management: “Salt Scales Automation” ($300,000 in 2024-2025)
- Human Resources and Corporate Communications: “One Time Position Changes” ($147,400)
- Human Resources and Corporate Communications: “Sustainable Position Changes” ($321,900)
- Human Resources and Corporate Communications: “Special Projects” ($50,700)
- Human Resources and Corporate Communications: “Advertising Expenditure” ($10,000)
- Planning and Development: “Reduction in District Heritage Grant” ($300,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Parking Revenue – increase parking revenue forecast from $180,000 to $220,000” ($40,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Alderney 3rd Floor- Changes to Projected Revenue” ($130,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Alderney 4th floor – increase to reflect potential additional lease revenue” ($100,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Introduce Anti-idling goals of decreasing current idling time by 15%” ($50,000)
- Property, Fleet and Environment: “Reduce Halifact Consulting” ($200,000)
At council’s budget committee meeting on Friday, they’ll debate budgets for the chief administrative office, Finance and Asset Management, and Legal and Legislative Services.
The CAO’s report includes a briefing note on the proposed $260,700 cut to the Civic Innovation Outpost, which is paid to VOLTA Labs annually. There’s no information on the “Road to Economic Prosperity Action Plan.”
There are also two options over budget in the CAO’s report: $482,800 for hiring related to the Public Safety Strategy and $125,000 to expand the street navigator program.