Council Update: Purcell’s Cove Backlands, Feral Cats, Otter Lake, Pensions

Purcell's Cove Backlands. Photo: CBC

Purcell’s Cove Backlands: My first day back from my 1.5 week vacation and our public agenda wasn’t a very long one. Council had a long discussion in camera on the Purcell’s Cove Backlands though and I’m able to share some details now because the municipality has reached a tentative deal with the property’s owner, The Shaw Group, and with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. A press release detailing the following went out this evening. Shaw’s 380 acres will be purchased at market value ($6.6 million). The Nature Conservancy will pay $2.5 million and a conservation easement will be applied to the lands while HRM will pay the remaining $4.1 million. Title to the lands will be held by HRM. Shaw will construct a parking entrance and will retain naming rights for the new Shaw Wilderness Park.

When I was in university in Halifax, I use to go out to Williams Lake to swim. I know this property has been used informally by many as parkland for decades and that it holds a special place in the hearts of many. I’m happy that, if all the pieces come together, that it will enhanced and protected for future generations to enjoy. Buying these blocks of lands are really legacy pieces since once purchased, they’re secured forever. Before the deal is finalized, HRM will undertake public consultation so expect to hear more about this in the weeks ahead.

Photo: SPCA

Feral Cats: The item that attracted the most interest on the public agenda was the proposed community grant program to neuter feral cats. In 2016, HRM entered into a partnership with the SPCA to pilot a trap, neuter and return (TNR) program. The idea behind TNR is that if all cats in a colony are fixed, their numbers will slowly dwindle. Besides reducing community nuisance complaints, controlling the feral cat population is good environmental policy because cats aren’t native to Nova Scotia and they do a lot of damage to bird and amphibian populations. It’s also the humane thing to do. HRM provided the SPCA with $50,000 in funding, which allowed the SPCA to neuter 780 cats. As part of the program, the SPCA also found that 50% of feral cats are sociable and can be adopted. HRM’s $50,000 really went a long way! (SPCA report here)

Having concluded a successful pilot, staff had proposed an administrative order to formalize a permanent grant program. This isn’t an unusual approach and would have been similar to existing grant programs for community groups, search and rescue, rural transit, arts, and civic/special events. For all of these, an administrative order exists to set out the criteria and process, Council sets the budget, the grants committee assesses the applications, and Council has the final say on awards. Council does still have the ability to provide funding to non-profits outside of HRM’s formal programs, but it’s not a common occurrence.

The proposed grant program would have covered TNR, but staff also looked at the feral cat problem in a broader more holistic way. The administrative order would have also enabled grants to groups that provide low-cost spaying and neutering. I thought this was a valuable and natural extension of the program since folks who don’t spay or neuter their pets due to cost inevitably end up with kittens and some of those kittens end up becoming feral cats. Groups like the SPCA and Bide A While provide services in the low-income space, but they don’t receive any municipal support to do it.

It took me by complete surprise though that the proposed grant program, however, was viewed as a threat to the SPCA’s TNR efforts. I had misread the dozen or so emails that had come in and, as it turned out, Councillor Adam’s eventual motion. The concern seems to have hinged on the fact that a grant program would be open to applications from other groups and that, therefore, the SPCA’s $50,000 mightn’t be guaranteed in future years. No one jumps for joy at the prospect of an application process either. In response, Councillor Adams asked Council to defeat the staff recommendation and instead provide a direct grant to the SPCA each year for the next five years.

I went against the majority on this one and voted in favour of the staff recommended grant program because I think having a formal structure would have been valuable. More importantly though, I voted for the administrative order, because in the rush to defend the SPCA’s $50,000, we completely missed the opportunity to be more effective on the low-cost spay/neuter side where there is currently no municipal support. The CAO indicated that the SPCA’s $50,000 for 2017 was pretty much guaranteed so there would have been no loss or danger to this year’s program. What Council could have done and what I advocated for was approving the administrative order and then allocating additional funds (another $25,000 or $50,000) in the 2018 budget so that the SPCA’s work could continue uninterrupted while also helping other non-profits doing complimentary work. This could have been a win-win for the broader effort of addressing feral cats. I made the pitch, but I couldn’t sway enough of my colleagues. The good news is the SPCA program will be funded (I’m happy about that), but the bad news is Council allowed fear of the unknown to deter us from doing something even better.

Otter Lake in 2012. Photo: Otter Lake Community Monitoring Committee

Otter Lake Community Fund: Another issue that was before us was setting up a community integration fund for the Otter Lake Landfill. The impetus for this request seems to have been based on the changes to HRM’s waste policies and fees that have prompted most commercial haulers to truck trash outside of HRM to landfills in neighbouring municipalities. The result, along with environmentally friendly policies like green bins and clear bags, is that the amount of waste coming into the landfill has significantly decreased, prolonging the life of the landfill. Instead of closing in the next 20 years, Otter Lake could now be open for another 40 years without increasing the height of the cells or opening new ones. The 40 year timeline has a small asterix next to it since changes in regulations or pricing at landfills outside of HRM could result in commercial haulers returning to Otter Lake, which would speed up how quickly the landfill’s remaining cells are filled up.

The idea behind a community fund is to compensate communities affected by necessary, but undesirable, public uses with community funding. In Dartmouth, there was a community fund to offset any impacts from the sewage treatment plant, which is what gave us the Harbour Trail. Funds have also accompanied the other sewage treatment plants and HRM is looking at establishing one for the new/expanded compost facility.

For Otter Lake though, two decades on, I didn’t see a good argument to create a fund. The landfill has been operating since 1998 and it hasn’t produced the problems that beset the Sackville Dump. It’s a very different facility. Since HRM isn’t changing anything in terms of the operation of the landfill and all that’s changed is what always a moving target for when its full, I don’t see the justification to create a fund. The majority of Council felt the same way.

Pension: The hot-button issue on the agenda was what do with David Hensbee’s pension motion. Contrary to popular belief, HRM councillors don’t receive special pensions. Councillors aren’t like MLAs or MPs, we participate in the exact same pension plan that is available to all municipal employees. We are subject to all of the same terms and conditions. The only difference is councillors have to actively opt in. For municipal employees its mandatory. The cost of pensions is shared between plan members and the municipality and is largely supported by growth in the pooled investment over time. Basically you contribute throughout your career and that investment grows to support you and other plan members. The result is that for anyone who needs to buy back lost years, such as when employees go on unpaid leave, the cost can be significant because HRM’s matching grant isn’t available. Councillor Hendsbee’s motion would have allowed Councillors to buyback lost years while still getting the HRM contribution. I feel for Councillor Hendsbee’s situation. There are many people looking at retirement with little in the way of savings, but it wasn’t something that I could support because it would have deviated from the fundamental principle that Councillors receive the same as all the rest of HRM’s employees. The vote was 13-3 against.

Other Business:

  • Closed a never developed piece of Metropolitan Avenue in Lower Sackville
  • Approved changes to the Bedford Light Industrial Zone to allow gas stations
  • Deferred a decision pending more information on participating in the provincial fuel purchase
  • Scheduled a public hearing for a less than market sale of surplus property to the Bedford Basin Yacht Club
  • Entered into a 20 year lease with Halifax Water to allow a field to be built on the utility’s property in North Preston
  • Second reading for three items including the Stormwater ROW Bylaw (see last Council meeting for highlights on that issue), changes to the Parking Meter Bylaw to allow parking machines in the future, and updates to the Emergency Response bylaw
  • Approved an encroachment with the Port to allow an antenna to be installed on municipal property near the Fairview Container Terminal so that the Port Authority can monitor truck traffic
  • Approved a substantial alteration to a heritage property (subdivision of excess land from the main property)
  • Request staff reports on lacrosse facilities, reuse of the Windsor Junction Hantsport Railway corridor and the derelict Memorial Library

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the update Sam. Sorry that low-cost spay and neuter programs didn’t get through. That would help cut the unwanted cat population.

  2. Sam – I didn’t think the backlands and the Williams Lake swimming spot were part of the same situation. I have noticed the “for sale” sign on the access area to Williams Lake and had wondered if this would be another case where the municipality could do some purchases of land.

    • Should have clarified. We would go in at the swimming spot and swim across to the Backlands 🙂 Although I do see in viewpoint what you’re saying about the swimming path and that point being for sale. Not cheap either! If the Backlands purchase goes through, I expect the park development will include swimming access somewhere along the shore.

  3. All councillors who have been on council prior to 2016 have been paying into the HRM pension plan in amounts greater than allowed by the HRM legislation and taxpayers have also paid matching amounts that were not allowed by HRM legislation. Senior staff knew the amounts were not allowed and covered up the ‘mistake’ for more than a decade.
    Several years ago I wrote a detailed letter to the HRM Auditor General asking him to look into the matter but received no reply other than a perfunctory response thanking me for bring the matter to their attention.
    Ne member of staff has mentioned the issue in any report to Council including the reports for the August 15 2017 council meeting.

    Your ‘Council Update’ is valuable for the explanations of what is happening at Council and in the District.

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