March 7, 2017 – So here’s what happened of note on Tuesday.
Budget: Having decided what to include in the budget after various department’s presented to Council over the last several weeks, we had to decide how to pay for the extras. Some of the noteworthy extra items included more money for parks, keeping the extended ferry hours, new computers for the libraries, and expanding the library’s collection. Our options to pay for these additional items was to increase the tax bill for the average residential property by more than the 1.8% already planned, cut items from the budget, dip into reserves or add more debt. The same basic choices that exist whether you’re HRM or a household. We opted to limit the tax increase to 1.8%, divert about $2,000,000 that would go to pay for capital to the operating budget and to maintain the projects in the capital budget as is. It essentially amounts to a short-term draw on reserves since sending more tax revenue to operations means the capital budget will be more reliant on HRM’s savings for the next two years before it resets again.
One thing that’s been interesting to learn since being elected is how well HRM has managed its debt. The total municipal debt has shrunk from a high of almost $350 million after amalgamation to $245 million for the upcoming year, an almost 30% change (see attached graph). HRM continues to pay off about $5 million each year. HRM has managed a lot of capital projects by saving up for them, essentially paying for capital from the operating budget. Over the next few years there are going to be some ups and downs, but the approved plan is to balance out. If only all levels of government were so responsible. Debt servicing still costs HRM $45 million a year though. Essentially, we could build a Central Library every year if we had less debt, but like most households, we have a mortgage to carry.
Campaign Finance: Look for a conversation to begin in the near future on election rules surrounding political donations. Council approved a public consultation program. How much should someone be allowed to give? Should donations be limited to individuals? Should candidates have spending limits? More to come on this potential bylaw.
Museum Funding: Council voted to overrule staff’s recommendation to not implement an interim funding program for community run museums in HRM. Staff would prefer to wait until the Cultural Priorities Plan is complete before providing any funding, but that could be years away. Council opted to proceed instead. Staff will now develop an interim program for Council’s approval.
Appeals Committee/Taxis: Councillor Mason presented a motion to study the process of appeals for taxi licensing. Staff are already working on a review of HRM’s taxi system, but Mason’s motion has directed them to go further on the structure of appeals. I haven’t been commenting on the Bassam Al-Rawi’s case because I sit on the Appeals Committee. If HRM decides to take action and remove Al-Rawi‘s license, then he could appeal that decision and it would come before me. I’m required to keep an open mind. If I’m biased, then it could create grounds for a court to overrule whatever decision the Appeals Committee might make in the future.
More generally though, I supported Mason’s motion as I think it’s worth considering whether politicians are the appropriate appeal body for municipal decisions. The provincial and federal governments have long since divided politics and policy-making from judicial decision-making. At the municipal level, where the stakes apart from taxis are typically lower (is the flaking paint on your house unsightly or not) this hasn’t happened. Who should be making these decisions, politicians or some sort of municipal tribunal is something that is worth looking at.
I’m not going to comment on the decision that was made by the Appeals Committee in 2014 since the Al-Rawi case is still active. During the debate of Mason’s motion, I did volunteer my own experience as a new councillor on the appeals committee. There have been four meeting of Appeals since I was elected and I can attest that it’s a really hard Committee to serve on. Human element loom large at Appeals. The Committee doesn’t get much material in advance so on the plus side it’s fairly easy to prepare for, but on the downside, you’re left with making decisions in a short period of time based largely on what is presented. There isn’t a lot of time to reflect. Unlike every other standing committee, Appeals decisions also don’t roll up to Regional Council to be voted on by everyone. There is no opportunity for a second look. I find it a very challenging environment and I’m looking forward to looking at alternatives to how it is structured.