Halifax councillors have agreed to provide $7 million in municipal funding for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia as they work to finalize their 2022-2023 budget.
Council’s budget committee met on Wednesday to debate the budget adjustment list. The meeting is the culmination of the months-long budget process. Over that time, as each municipal department has brought its budget to the committee, councillors have added items to the budget adjustment list for further consideration later in the process.
The total operating and capital budget will likely be more than $1 billion, and on Wednesday, councillors added nearly $7 million, net.
Among the millions added to the budget for 2022-2023 was $700,000 for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. It’s the first of 10 equal payments HRM will make toward the $130-million project planned for the Halifax waterfront.
With the provincial government paying $70 million and the federal government $10 million, the gallery’s CEO came to council to ask for a contribution of $7 million paid over five years. Councillors voted to consider the request in 2021, but the figure didn’t make it into the budget.
In January, staff recommended a smaller contribution of $3 million paid over five years. As the Halifax Examiner reported in February, a majority councillors were keen to bump that number back up:
Coun. Shawn Cleary moved to increase HRM’s contribution back up to the original $7 million, asking staff to come back to the budget committee with a recommended payment schedule.
“Halifax is the major beneficiary of this,” Cleary said.
“It’ll be a foundation for arts and culture. People talk about the central library like it’s the living room of Halifax. This could be our rec room, or certainly some other third space that’s extremely important.”
Cleary moved to add the contribution to the budget on Wednesday, opting to lower the payments to $700,000 starting in 2022-2023. Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé said the province has signaled it’s content with that arrangement.
Councillors also voted to add $825,000 to the budget for free fares for all transit on Fridays and for ferries on Saturdays in July and August.
The move is one of several designed to kickstart the economy coming out of the pandemic. The municipality will also void parking tickets if drivers provide proof they were at a local business when they were ticketed at a cost of $200,000, and it’s providing $275,000 in funding for a marketing campaign, a Black-owned business campaign, and events grants.
Parks or development?
HRM will spend $1.25 million in 2022-2023 on master planning for three proposed subdivision developments: one in Morris Lake on the border of Cole Harbour and Eastern Passage, one in the area of Sandy Lake in Bedford, and one on the Akoma Holdings lands in Westphal. There was a fourth area proposed, encroaching on the proposed park at Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes, but councillors voted to remove it.
Karen McKendry, wilderness outreach coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, used her public speaking opportunity at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting to urge councillors not to support the master planning at either Sandy Lake or Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes.
McKendry argued the municipality is already conducting studies to determine the ideal boundaries for parks in both locations, which are important for biodiversity and wildlife connectivity in the area as reflected in the city’s own Green Network Plan.
“There’s this disconnect in the regional plan. One section, it says these are growth centres, and we want to advance them to development before the end of the plan. Different section, it says these are regional parks, which we want to also advance,” McKendry said.
“I’m saying let’s finish some studies and some other information about those areas before you go ahead with planning for development.”
Councillors previously raised concerns about those areas’ proposals in the regional plan during a meeting in January.
Kelly Denty, executive director of planning and development at HRM, told councillors on Wednesday it’s important to look into each of the four areas to determine their suitability for development.
“We are contemplating that they will eventually be areas that are developed, so better to know now what the constraints are and take advantage of perhaps a single consultant, looking at this work, looking at all of these areas, doing it in a uniform manner, and getting some intelligence relative to what is actually possible on these lands,” Denty said.
Mayor Mike Savage agreed.
“There’s environmental implications that will be better served by doing some of that planning now, and I think it’s important that we get those done,” he said.
Savage, along with councillors Becky Kent, Trish Purdy, Tony Mancini, Waye Mason, Lindell Smith, and Iona Stoddard, voted in the minority to keep the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes area on the list for master planning.
Councillors voted 11-5 in favour of keeping the Sandy Lake area on the list, with Cleary, David Hendsbee, Lisa Blackburn, and Paul Russell voting no.
Here’s the full list of what councillors added to the budget on Wednesday, totaling $7,888,200:
- $200,000 for one of several proposed “Parking Initiatives to Support Business Recovery,” voiding parking tickets when people show proof of purchase from a local business
- $50,000 for a “Welcome back Downtown” marketing campaign
- $25,000 for “Supporting and promoting Black-owned business”
- $700,000 for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, committing to equal payments over 10 years
- $825,000 to make buses and ferries free on Fridays and ferries free on Saturdays in July and August
- $200,000 for events grants to help the reopening effort coming out of the pandemic
- $200,000 for planning for development surrounding the proposed Mill Cove fast ferry terminal
- $1 million for “bylaw simplification,” meaning new land-use planning documents for rural and suburban HRM
- $1.25 million for master planning for new development in the areas of Morris Lake, Sandy Lake, and the Akoma lands in Westphal
- $40,000 for an off-leash dog park in Governor’s Brook in Spryfield
- $160,000 to subsidize multi-district facilities like the Zatzman Sportsplex
- $75,000 for an “Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator” to help with HRM’s efforts to house people
- $220,000 for staffing to create more sidewalks across HRM next year
- $200,000 to upgrade crosswalks across HRM
- $300,000 for rural library access, including longer hours, community kiosks, and mail delivery
- $250,000 for library programming designed to promote community and early childhood development coming out of the pandemic
- $924,700 to hire more city planners to work on permitting applications
- $568,000 to increase wages for HRM’s casual staff (details in camera)
- $110,500 for a new youth centre in Spryfield
- $35,000 to provide grants to cover insurance at community rinks
- $250,000 in increased funding for Discover Halifax, the city’s tourism marketing group
- $300,000 for more ebooks and audio books
- $55,000 for education and programming for volunteer Joint Emergency Management teams
- $100,000 to hire a staff person for the Board of Police Commissioners
- $50,000 for the clerk’s office to convert a part-time staffer to full-time
Councillors also removed $990,000 from the budget:
- $300,000 by increasing parking fines from $35 ($30 if paid in 7 days) to $45 ($40 if paid in 7 days)
- $315,000 by increasing tipping fees at commercial compost and recycling facilities
- $100,000 by eliminating the victim-blamey Heads Up Halifax campaign
- $275,000 by deferring a 20-year “community vision” plan
And while it doesn’t move the needle up or down, councillors agreed to allow Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency to reduce its overtime budget to hire 10 new firefighters next year.
The net outcome of council’s moves on Wednesday sets the city up for a 4.6% increase to the average tax bill, which is the number contemplated in January, down from 5.9% at the start of the budget process. As the Examiner reported in January:
The new proposal is to cut the tax rate, from 0.813% to 0.797%. While that could be presented as a tax cut, that’s not how HRM presents it. Rather, the municipality’s finance staff presented the change to council as an increase to the average residential tax bill of 4.6%, or $94 (again, it’s more for properties assessed at more than $270,000, and vice versa).
It’s unclear what the rate will be, but it’s likely to be in that vicinity.
That 4.6% on the average bill includes the 3% climate action tax announced at the start of the budget process last year. That portion of the tax increase, amounting to more than $150 million over the next four years, is intended to fund electric buses, electric fleet vehicles, protection of critical infrastructure, and deep energy retrofits of municipal buildings.
There was some controversy earlier in the budget process about whether councillors would end up keeping the tax increase, and whether it should be framed as an additional tax at all. Protesters showed up to Halifax City Hall on Wednesday to make sure councillors followed through, and in the end, they made no changes to the climate tax.
Councillors avoided further tax increases during Wednesday’s meeting partially by following staff’s advice and increasing the budget for deed transfer taxes in 2022-2023 by $3 million to $83 million. That tax revenue, from a 1.5% levy on all property transactions, is expected to continue to increase with HRM’s hot housing market. They also voted to fund millions worth of one-time items by using some of the project $19 million surplus from 2021-2022.
The final budget vote, setting the tax rate for 2022-2023, is scheduled for April 12.