The big news from Council is we passed the 2017/2018 budget. HRM has recently started a process of detailed multi-year budgeting for several years out. For District 5, here are some highlights that are in the plan for the next several years: Sportsplex renovation, Alderney Landing recap, landscaping for the Canal Greenway, trail from Penhorn Lake to Penhorn Terminal, continuation of the ferry’s extended service after the Big Lift is complete (6 month trial), and MacDonald Bridge bike connections. One significant item that now appears in the long-range plan is a new Regional Museum, which would be located in Dartmouth. Planning for a new museum will begin after HRM completes its Cultural Spaces Plan, which is currently underway. The museum appears in HRM’s long-range major capital plan with $12 million allocated in 2021. This is obviously subject to change, but it’s great to see a plan starting to take shape. We’ve been without a museum that can properly exhibit HRM’s collection since the old Wyse Road location was condemned and closed in 2002.
HRM has held the line on taxes for three of the last four years, but rising costs meant that we were facing either significant service cuts or a tax increase this year. This year, taxes are being held flat, but rather than reducing them in proportion to rising assessments, HRM is taking the “lift.” Amounts to a 1.8% increase on average, or $33 per household. Nature of the assessment system means that some will pay a bit more and others will pay a bit less.
One piece that I have found very interesting to learn during the budget process is how well HRM has managed its debt over successive councils. Amalgamation left HRM with a $350 million hangover, which has been steadily chipped away at and now stands at about $250 million. As Tim Outhit has pointed out to me, if you factor in HRM’s reserves, which are expected to total $130 million by the end of the 2017/2018 fiscal year, then our debt is even lower. There are very, very few other governments that can report the same level of consistent fiscal discipline. An achievement of Council’s past and present and HRM staff.
40 km/hr Speed Limit:
The idea of reducing speed limits in residential areas was also before Council. This isn’t something that HRM has the ability to do on its own. Speed limits are set in the Provincial Motor Vehicle Act and the lowest that the Act currently allows is 50 km/hr. HRM is asking for the ability to reduce the limit in residential neighbourhoods to 40 km/hr. This is not about arterial streets or commercial/industrial areas or making rush hour harder for commuters (unless you’re short cutting through residential neighbourhoods), it’s about reducing speeds in residential neighbourhoods that aren’t meant to carry through traffic.
It was pointed out in the debate that this isn’t the first time that HRM has made this ask. Councillor Karstin recalled at least three previous requests to the Province that went nowhere. There seemed to be some optimism in the room though that the politics might be different this time around. Certainly the relationship between speed and pedestrian deaths and injuries has become increasingly clear, with cities around the world adopting variations of Vision Zero policies. You can find some small differences in the accumulated data, but the overall trend from around the world shows an uptick in pedestrian deaths and severe injuries when collision speeds exceed 40 km/hr.
I personally favour giving HRM the ability to be more flexible and voted in favour of asking the Province to give HRM the power to reduce speeds in residential areas to 40 km/hr. HRM would still be able to post higher speeds, but there is really no reason for narrow side streets that see little traffic, such as Cleveland Crescent, to be a 50 km/hr zone.
This isn’t just a safety issue, it goes to the quality of life. We went from a society where nearly 50% of kids walked to school in the 1960s to one in which just 13% do so today with corresponding health impacts. That’s a huge generational change in a relatively shot period of time and I know from knocking on doors that in parts of Dartmouth its fear of traffic that is at least part of the problem (more demanding family schedules, fear of crime, and the loss of neighbourhood schools being other big ones). Studies have also shown that people who live on busy streets are far less likely to know their neighbours.
It’s true that changing the speed limit alone won’t have a major impact on speed because most people drive the speed at which they feel safe. As long as we build wide, straight streets to move cars as quickly as possible, we will continue to have speed issues. It’s my hope that in the future, we can pair reduced speed limits in residential neighbourhoods with better street design to make our roadways more open to all users. We should aim for a better balance in how we use our common space, our streets.
Council had a report into Kindness Meters before us. The idea is that when you pay for parking, that there could be an additional option to make a donation to charity. This would likely be to the United Way, which is an umbrella funding organization for many local charities. Kindness meters have been controversial in some places where a specific meter or set of meters have been dedicated to raising funds for charities. From my quick reading from places like Fredericton, this approach of designating a specific meter is usually more of a PR gimmick than anything else since it raises very little money, and the administrative costs are high. Rather than designating specific meters, most municipal governments would have been better off to just provide a grant to the charities that they want to support, keep the parking revenue and skip all the administrative complexities. Kindness meters have also been used in a very unkind way to try and discourage people from giving money to panhandlers.
I’m happy to report that HRM isn’t making any of those mistakes with our proposed program. How kindness meters will work here if implemented is it’ll be an additional option at the new parking pay stations. Pretty much the same as when you’re in line at Sobeys or Superstore and you’re asked when paying if you would like to make a donation to charity. Relatively simple to administer, low cost, and with the potential for a broad reach. I voted in favour and the motion passed 16-1 (United Way part of the three part motion was 14-3).
The Cornwallis debate made an unplanned reappearance at Council when HRM’s poet laureate, Rebecca Thomas, presented her poem “Not Perfect” at the start of the meeting. Powerful stuff (click on the picture below to hear it).
In response, Councillor Clearly served notice that he intends to bring a motion to revisit the Cornwallis discussion. Debate begins again on this issue on April 25.
In other business, Council rejected staff advice to not allow tenants to apply for sidewalk patios. Right now it’s only buildings owners who can apply, not tenants. I have had no complaints from any Dartmouth businesses, but this seems to be an issue for one or two restaurants in Downtown Halifax whose landlords aren’t overly cooperative. We also approved cost-sharing with Halifax Water for sidewalks in Hammond Plains, and paved the way for community groups who receive grants from HRM to also apply for Canada 150 funds from the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia.