Halifax regional council agreed to fund a number of community projects as part of the 2020-21 budget, and community infrastructure, libraries, and staffing are getting a big chunk of the money.
During Wednesday’s budget committee meeting, councillors approved millions in additional budget spending. The average residential tax bill is still only expected to see an increase of 1.4 per cent, or just under $30 for a single family home.
This comes after an assessment update in January suggesting an expected increase in tax revenue of $4.5 million. A staff budget report states “there has been increased growth in residential and resource assessment, driven primarily by apartments.”
HRM is also expecting a roughly $16.2 million surplus this year “driven primarily by growth in deed transfer tax,” according to the report.
“Next year, we won’t have some of this cushion that we have,” Mayor Mike Savage cautioned at the beginning of Wednesday’s budget committee meeting.
“The time to raise taxes is when you have to, not when you can.”
Still, the majority of items on the budget adjustment list, or the “parking lot,” were approved by council. The term refers to over or under budgeted funding that council can vote to include or exclude.
Part of the $16.2 million surplus will be used to cover a number of one-time funding requests.
Those projects include infrastructure renewal in downtown Dartmouth, ($2 million), seawall design work at Regatta Point ($80,000), and three possible splash pads in Dartmouth, Eastern Passage, and Timberlea ($500,000).
From the remaining surplus, council voted to allocate up to $12.9 million toward capital projects, rather than funding them with new debt.
In addition to that, $3.72 million in funding was approved for on-going items such as new staff positions, tree pruning and maintenance. The $4.5 million in additional tax revenue is expected to cover those costs.
Proposed upgrades for Keshen Goodman Public Library
A number of projects were also approved to be funded through reserves. That includes $2 million in upgrades at the Keshen Goodman Public Library in Clayton Park.
The upgrades will add to the space and help redesign the layout.
In an interview, Åsa Kachan, CEO and chief librarian for Halifax Public Libraries, said it will help address some of the “challenges” with the facility.
“Poor acoustics, some overcrowding, a lack of the kind of spaces that everyone really needs, whether that’s for language learning or that’s for teens to gather and be full of energy,” she said, outlining some of the challenges.
Kachan said the work is expected to be completed in the next year.
The budget will also provide $250,000 for Halifax Public Libraries to expand its collections. The library’s holdings per capita, meaning borrowable material, is currently below average.
Last month, Coun. Sam Austin asked staff to look into how much it would cost to bring Halifax in line with the national benchmark. A report stated the amount is roughly $1.3 million a year through 2025.
While many councillors spoke in favour of the additional $250,000, some disagreed, including Coun. Bill Karsten.
“That $250,000 could have done my rec centre that needs phase two. That’s not going to get done now until next year,” he said. “I’m fine with that, but I can’t support this.”
Coun. Richard Zurawski felt the “education of our children” shouldn’t be pitted against other projects.
“The basic premise of a library is to educate, and if we take that away, if we compare that to the raw functionality of certain operations, then what we do is we take young people and say we don’t value your future,” he said.
Ultimately, the majority of councillors voted in favour of the library funding.
Council also approved $50,000 toward the library’s programs providing free hot drinks and food to the public.
Council stuck to its decision to only provide $157,500 toward two new positions for Halifax Regional Police. HRP Chief Dan Kinsella had originally requested funding for eight new positions.
Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency will also receive funding for its requests to increase uniforms and clothing ($270,000), increase in requirements for training materials and services to maintain standards ($290,000), increase to resolve logistics cost pressures ($230,000) and increase to resolve cost pressures in professional services ($60,000).
According to a staff report, there is “considerable wage pressure” on the 2020-21 operating budget, in part due to collective agreements, which has resulted in a $14.8 million increase.
“The reality is HRM costs go up each and every year,” said Coun. Sam Austin in an interview. “We end up having to pay more for wages, which are about half of our total expenditure, we pay more for fuel, we pay more for electricity.”
While the tax increase could have been smaller, Austin is still pleased with how the budget turned out.
“It’s kind of a dream budget compared to the previous three that I’ve been involved with. This is by far the easiest one,” he said.
The budget isn’t finalized yet, but the current numbers aren’t expected to change much before next month’s final presentation.
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Alex has worked in the radio industry for over 10 years at stations throughout BC and central Alberta. She has a Bachelor's Degree in political...