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Halifax city hall's 2023 highlights

Your special sample of The Coast's City Hall Insider Newsletter.

Hey Coast Daily members! 👋 

Welcome to the first City Hall Insiders newsletter of this new year. As you may have read about in this morning’s Coast Daily newsletter, we produce this city politics newsletter once a week for our awesome paying Coast Insider members. You’re getting it today as a free sample, in part because we are trying to get more paid subscribers, so that I—reporter Matt Stickland—can keep reporting on city hall for The Coast. And maintaining strong local journalism focused on city hall is particularly import in 2024 because it’s a municipal election year.

But I wanted to send this edition of the newsletter out specifically because of a study from the Canadian Urban Institute that I mention in about a dozen paragraphs. The very short summary of what you’ll read is this: When councillors keep taxes low to “help” us, it does a lot more harm than good, because that is also suffocating the city’s main source of revenue. But worry not; there is reason for hope. We’ll join the regularly scheduled City Hall Insider newsletter so you can find out why, right after this brief message asking to you become an Insider for as low as $8.25 a month.

Support Halifax. Support The Coast.

Become an Insider member and help keep local journalism and storytelling alive in the HRM.

What a year 2023 was! In a way, the two Halifax teams I follow most intensely (the Wanderers of soccer and the Bureaucracy of city hall) had remarkably similar seasons. At the end of their 2022 outings, both teams were being lead by a well-respected, somewhat institutional figure in their respective teams: The Wanderers by inaugural coach Stephen Hart, the city by post-Peter-Kelly-scandal substitution chief administrative officer Jaques Dubé. Hart and Dubé both found themselves out of a job at the start of the 2023 season. Hart was replaced by an unknown out of Vaughn’s league One named Patrice Ghiesar. Dubé was replaced by former Halifax Water CEO Cathie O’Toole.

O’Toole is not an unknown to Haligonians. During the Peter Kelly scandal she was one of the few top-level city employees who did no wrong. In fact, the city’s finance department was noticeably better by the time she decided to leave it for Halifax Water. And O’Toole’s time at Halifax Water may have given her some valuable ideas to bring back to the Bureaucracy, particularly around how the water utility charges fees for development: They are extremely high and legislatively unavoidable. 

Now this may seem like a super deep, tangential rabbit hole (even for me), but essentially Halifax Water’s fees, called Regional Development Charges, are high enough that they are often cited as a roadblock to affordable housing developments.And the reason their fees are so high is that Halifax Water was one of the earliest adopters of sustainable infrastructure development fees. Which Halifax Water describes on its website like this:

Regional Development Charges (RDC) were introduced in 2014, with the approval of the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB). The purpose of the RDC is to ensure that growth pays for growth and helps protect affordability and equity of existing ratepayers. In other words, current customers do not pay for or subsidize the new infrastructure required to support growth. This supports the user-pay principle and also inter-generational equity, as today’s customers will not pay for the infrastructure required to support future customers.

Unlike the HRM, Halifax Water charges enough in development fees to install and maintain the cost of the infrastructure they are building. The fee is high enough to cover the costs of the entire expected life of the infrastructure. And who was in charge of Halifax Water’s finances when this fiscal sustainability change took place? Why none other than the HRM’s new CAO, Cathie O’Toole.

This is really exciting if you believe (like I do) that the city’s new top bureaucrat is going to bring this type of fiscal sustainability to the HRM in her new role as queen of the pencil pushers.

And O’Toole’s influence here could be absolutely revolutionary for the city of Halifax because charging sustainable fees for development is not something the city currently does for its development. In fact, last year was the first year since 1997 the city raised its development fees. Letting development fees languish since 1997 is one of the many reasons the HRM is way too reliant on property taxes as a source of income.

This graph was made by the Canadian Urban Institute (link above the pic)

In recent years Halifax has been relying on the deed transfer tax to cover budget shortfalls. This tax is a bit of money the city gets every time a piece of property changes hands. But with the cooling housing market, this revenue has dried up. And to give you an idea why losing the deed transfer tax hurt us so much, last year it accounted for roughly 6% of Halifax’s olive green “Other” category in the chart above.

What the size of the Other section also shows us is that most of Halifax is funded by property owners paying taxes. A lot of those property taxes are capped: Even when housing prices shoot up, people who bought sub-$200,000 homes over 10 years ago are making out like bandits, as they are massively under-taxed. Anyways, infrastructure is only fractionally paid by development fees, the bulk of it is paid by property taxes. To be clear, the chart above is not showing anything about spending, but instead showing an overreliance on property taxes to pay for municipal services. What this means in turn is that road maintenance is not paid for just with parking fees and fines, it is also paid for by property taxes. Halifax needs to diversify its revenue sources.

That said, the development bond motion brought up and passed at Dec. 12’s council meeting could address the fee/revenue discrepancy. Essentially, the city wants to start making developers pay sustainable fees for required infrastructure around their development that would be extremely expensive (e.g. Halifax Water fees). If you don’t understand how bonds work, that’s fine, what’s important to know is the end result: Bonds make borrowing a large amount of money for infrastructure much less of a liability to developers and the city. If the developer builds the infrastructure, the city gets the infrastructure and the developer gets their money back. If the developer doesn’t do the infrastructure, the city has the money to build it. It is extremely likely that if the city goes this route, bonds would be set at sustainable levels. And that would go a very long way to easing the long-term pressures of building infrastructure.

On top of that, councillor Tim Outhit blew up the budget process a while ago, so the city’s finance folks are tasked to bring council a draft budget in line with municipal priorities, instead of a draft that just takes last year’s budget and adds on more spending.

The regional plan review came back to council in late December after its extensive summer-long consultation process. The city’s legislative framework to implement its strategic priorities is about to be updated, and updated with more teeth to implement the city’s strategic plans than ever before. These positive legislative changes are expected to land in spring 2024, and it’s hard to state how much of a game changer this could be. We’re going on the power play, we’ve made three attacking subs in the 70th minute to try claw back at least one goal to steal a point—or maybe, if we get lucky, grab all three. I don’t know your sport of choice, but we’ve just made a massive tactical change to the way we are playing the game, and it’s likely to pay some serious dividends in the future. If the change is done right.

This is not unlike what new Wanderers coach Patrice Gheisar did this year with my other team. Our team. Out was the old way of playing. In was a new, fast-paced, possession-based football. Halifax made the playoffs, and had a home playoff game for the first time in franchise history. Just this week the Wanderers finalized the list of who’s staying on for next year, and already, before the second year of his coaching career in Halifax starts, the level of expectation is already being set around a second-place finish in the league.

Last year for Wanderers fans was kind of a big deal. And as a bonus, that link right there is a phenomenal year in review of the Wanderers season written by Gary Griffiths who writes (wrote 🙁) the From Aways blog. Gary’s writing was the inspiration for the style of The Otago Drive Saga.

Being a Wanderers fan was so great last year in large part because our coach, Patrice Gheisar, had a hell of a year.

Let’s see what the bureaucracy can achieve under O’Toole in her second year.

Recently at city hall (the TLDR version)

Let them eat scraps; Hendsbee auditions for Les Mis.

Trish Purdy almost did a good.

Trish Purdy almost did a bad.

Our bureaucracy is doing stretches and trying to get flexible?

Recently at city hall (full recap for the last two weeks before the holidays)

Monday, Dec 11

The Appeals Standing Committee met for an unsightly premises appeal.

North West Community Council met and got their annual report and approved their meeting schedule.

Twofer Tuesday, Dec 12: Budget and Council:

Councillor Trish Purdy is one of a few conservative (small c) council members who advocates for low taxes and better services. But she usually stands alone in that she also tries to come up with ways to save money. She was at it again during the budget meeting before the regular Tuesday council meet, and she deserves a lot of credit for always seeming to do the right thing, even if sometimes it almost feels accidental. We’ll have to reserve judgment until we see what her budget-meeting motion looks like if and when it comes back. But otherwise here’s a more fulsome recap of that meeting:

Right after that, council met. David Hendsbee and Pam Lovelave were out to lunch during council’s debates this meeting. Hendsbee reacted to Mike Savage cancelling the New Year’s Day levee as though it was a personal insult to the Eastern Shore councillor. Hendsebee told the mayor that he was quite disappointed, and didn’t know why the city couldn’t have the party and let the folks tenting in Grand Parade have the leftovers of the feast. Since Savage and the majority of councillors have read The Hunger Games, they voted to support the mayor in cancelling the live-action re-enactment of the dystopian movie.

Then, when council moved on to discussing a plan to sell surplus municipal land for affordable-housing development, Lovelace had a bit of a weird one. It’s hard to get a straight read of Lovelace’s politics. She seems very switched-on about the larger issues of sustainability facing the city, but then tries to work against fixing those issues when they have to be fixed in her district. Sometimes. Sometimes she supports it wholeheartedly. Lovelace had another mixed bag today. Here’s the full recap:

Wednesday, Dec 13

The Special Events Advisory Committee was cancelled.

The Audit and Finance Standing Committee met for one in-camera item. Formally attached to nothing on the agenda, there was also a Provincial Financial Indicators report from last year. In it, two finance staffers write that although this report says things are good, the information the province asks for is very surface-level, as it’s data gathered from all municipalities. Things may not be as rosy in the HRM specifically, especially if you use HRM’s reporting standards. Even in this report, our infrastructure risk—that is to say the difference between how much our infrastructure is worth vs how much it costs us—is increasing and will likely move from moderate to high by next year, unless that already happened earlier this year.

The Transportation Standing Committee met. Councillor Trish Purdy listened to one person on her street who told her that the islands on Colby Village drive haven’t been effective at slowing cars down, and asked for a staff report to get the things removed. Other members of the committee told Purdy that if people were hitting the islands and flipping their cars, the solution was more traffic calming, not less. Ultimately the committee, in an unfriendly amendment (meaning they amended Purdy’s motion, and she didn’t want that to happen), asked for a staff report about how to make the street safe, which could, if evidence supported it, include a recommendation to remove the islands.

The Board of Police Commissioners met and mainly heard more about why the RCMP says it needs more cops. There was no vote on the motion because chair of the board Becky Kent was absent. The board did approve their new budget process, and work plan. They also had a discussion about how to remove someone from the board, and what, if any, rules there should be around that. Bit of a wasted meeting this one, but I wrote about the RCMP’s request here: 

The Regional Centre Community Council met and their agenda still isn’t online. But the video is on YouTube so we know they got their annual review. When asked what the purpose of this process was, city staff explained to the community council that the annual review process allowed staff to take a look at legislation, see what worked, what didn’t and suggest changes. This process used to be done ad hoc, and now it’s an annual formalized review process with mechanisms to change legislation that isn’t working. Colour me impressed, this is a very good change to the city’s bureaucracy. 

The Western Common Advisory Committee was cancelled.

Thursday, Dec 14

The Community Planning and Economic Development Committee video on the HRM’s YouTube channel is glitched and is just a 38-second clip. They got and passed the rural recreation strategy. Early indications on this one is that it correctly identities a lot of the challenges of rural areas, and if implemented correctly, should improve the lives of rural residents. But essentially the problem can be explained by the skate park councillor Hendsbee wants to put in at the Lawrencetown Community Centre: If it does get built, the children in the community who would use it have no safe way to get there on their own. This will go to council for approval. They also recommend council adopt Sharing our Stories: HRM’s Culture and Heritage Priorities Plan.

And finally, the Regional Watersheds Advisory Board met to approve their meeting schedule.

Friday, Dec 15

Most Fridays the city government doesn’t have public meetings. This was another of those Fridays.

Monday, Dec 18

The design committee met on Monday Dec. 18 and rejected some towers in a housing crisis. This development has a lot of history, and both the city and the developer have been dumb on this. Jen Taplin has the better of the recaps of the issue IMO.

Tuesday & Wednesday, Dec 19 & 20

The holiday slowdown is in full effect.

Thursday, Dec 21

Council met and had a two-and-a-half-hour in-camera meeting about: 4.1 INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS - Private and Confidential Report. A matter pertaining to any subject, the discussion of which could, violate the confidentiality of information obtained from another body of government, or a public body. 

So it looks like I know what the first FOIPOPs of 2024 will be.

Friday, Dec 22

I started vacation.

That’s it! Since you made it to the end, I’ve got to ask:

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