Road Train: On Tuesday’s agenda, the grant request for the Halifax Community Road Train was back at Council. The Road Train is the creation of Ambassatours (Murphy’s) and operates in Downtown Halifax on a donation basis. The Road Train was at Council because Ambassatours asked Council for a grant to help pay for it. The Road Train has been a positive for Downtown Halifax in a difficult construction year, but that doesn’t change the fact that HRM is explicitly forbidden by the Charter from providing grants to business and that’s mostly a pretty good rule. Although HRM can’t fund Ambassatours directly, it can provide funding to a non-profit Society.
When the Road Train came to Council in July, staff recommended against providing a grant. Council, however, opted to proceed if Ambassatours provides a detailed budget, a service plan and proof that the train is being run by a not-for-profit. I backed advancing the Road Train in July, despite my reservations about the Ambassatours-Road Train Society relationship, because the train has merit and I wanted to see what would develop out of the conditions Council set.
On Tuesday, the Road Train returned to Council and, for me, the final submission didn’t provide enough distance between Ambassatours and the Road Train Society. The submission met the legal requirement, but went against the spirit of the Charter. The Road Train Society doesn’t own the train, it leases the train from Ambassatours. The Road Train Society also doesn’t operate the service, Ambassatours does through a management agreement. All it really exists to do is collect money from HRM and others and then provide that funding to Ambassatours to cover expenses ($100,000), a management fee ($30,821) and a lease fee ($45,900). All that had changed since the Road Train Society came to Council in July was the board is no longer all Ambassatours staff. In every measurable way that I can see, the Road Train is largely an Ambassatours venture.
HRM was being asked to provide $120,000 to the Road Train Society over three years, a significant contribution towards the $160,000 purchase price. From my perspective, what Council was really being asked to do here was buy Ambassatours train for them. If we’re going to buy a train, we should buy it for the non-profit. From a business perspective, the train seems to be doing very well since it has broken even in its very first year. If you subtract HRM’s $50,000, passenger revenue and advertisements have covered all of the expenses except the lease (repaying Ambassatour’s their purchase price over 3-4 years).
At Council, I make a point of trying to be constructive. My goal is to fix things that I see as having value, but that aren’t supportable as presented. As I tried to figure out what would make the Society not just a shell, what I concluded was simplest solution is for the Road Train Society to own the train. This entire venture and the Society’s stated purpose for being hinges on that train and as long as Ambassatours owns and operates it, the Society’s independence is on paper only. It’s not like they can go down to the used car lot and buy another train if things go south with Ambassatours at the end of the three year agreement. The Society has no practical control. Ownership though would shift that balance so I moved to defer a decision on funding the Road Train Society pending a supplemental staff report on ownership. My motion failed 9-7.
With a deferral to explore ownership of the train off the table, we were left to consider the main motion, fund the train or not? I voted against and was joined by Councillors Outhit, Craig, Blackburn, Adams, Zurawski, Nicoll and Cleary. The end result was an 8-8 tie. Since a tie defeats a motion, the proposal to fund the Road Train failed. It wasn’t the outcome I was looking for. I would have preferred to have given Ambassatours and the Society another chance to create a truly independent entity.
I’m open to looking at this again at some future date if the Road Train Society works out ownership of the train or makes some other change that I haven’t imagined that would make the Society more independent from Ambassatours.
Public Safety Strategy: Council approved a new Public Safety Strategy for HRM. The new strategy stakes out a worthy goal of creating a safer community, but it’s far more than a policing strategy. It aims to improve public safety by going after the root causes of crime and disorder. The plan focuses on social development, prevention, risk intervention, and emergency response. It’s a quite extensive document that lists 76 different actions, some of which will be HRM driven while others will need the cooperation of other levels of government. You can read it here. Council unanimously approved the strategy and to try and make sure that it’s not just a plan on a shelf, the CAO will make a progress report to Council every year on how implementation is going.
Assessment Cap: Ahead of the regular session of Council, we held a Committee of the Whole to do a detailed examination of the property assessment cap. The assessment was brought in by the Province back in 2005. For its first few years, it protected against truly significant assessment increases, putting the breaks on when a spike in a property’s assessment exceeded 10%. In 2008 though, the cap was tied to the consumer price index, which turned it into a brake on extreme situations into something that applied to most homeowners. Being tied to CPI has limited the average assessment increase for capped properties to 1.8% per year.
The cap’s main advantage is it creates reliable and consistent increases and prevents big spikes in assessments. The price for that consistency is it punishes people for buying a new home or renovating their existing one since that’s when the cap comes off. This has meant that two equally assessed homes on the same street can end up paying vastly different amounts depending on how long the owners have lived in the neighbourhood. In theory, the cap also punishes apartment dwellers since apartments aren’t capped and the taxes the owner pays are passed onto residents in the form of rent. Whether the positive of consistency for long-time residents outweighs the negatives is really a judgement call and when it comes to taxation, there are no easy answers!
One part of the presentation that really caught my eye is the number of people who are capped and think they’re saving money, but really aren’t. There is a set cost to running the municipality and that cost has to be paid regardless of whether a property is capped or not. About half of all homes pay less tax than they would without the cap, while 1/4 pay more because they’re new homes or were recently purchased or renovated. The really interesting part is the other 1/4 of all the homes that are capped, but still pay more because the higher tax rate is greater than their cap savings. This group is interesting because they no doubt believe they’re saving money thanks to the cap, but in reality they’re paying more because it’s drives up the tax rate. I suggested in discussion that HRM should include this calculation in the individual tax bills to try and be more transparent about the caps impacts. This argument of course only works if Council adjusts the tax rate each year in an honest and upfront way and doesn’t boast about holding the line on taxes while pocketing the lift from increasing assessments. This has definitely been the case in recent years.
The assessment cap is provincial legislation so ultimately Council can’t decide to do anything about it. The motion that Council eventually passed was to ask the Province to look at the cap’s negative impacts, but HRM wasn’t prescriptive about what solutions should be considered. I will, honestly, be quite surprised if the Province follows through on doing much of anything on this one though as the assessment cap is popular and it would be tempting for all political parties to try and use adjusting it to their political advantage. Still, it was an interesting discussion.
Municipal Lobbyist Registry: Councillor Cleary brought forward a motion to ask for a staff report on creating a municipal lobbyist registry. This one was fairly contentious around the Council table and ended up passing 9-7. I voted in favour as I’m keen to see what other municipalities are doing and what options Council might want to consider to be more transparent.
I have to say though, the scale of municipal government is very different than is the case for federal or provincial. In my one year on the job, there have only been only a few instances where I felt like I was being lobbied by someone who has a financial stake in a potential Council decision. I have never been approached by anyone regarding a tender coming before Council. It hasn’t happened. I have had meetings with developers and resident groups about proposed projects and I have met with union leaders. My general rule is my door is open to everyone, but that I don’t make any promises without first hearing from staff and others.
So I’m not sold that a lobbyist registry is really needed given HRM’s relatively small scale. I think the same transparency could be achieved without having to amend the Charter or create additional bureaucracy by simply posting each Councillor’s schedules online. Our calendar’s are already public and can be viewed by anyone filing a Freedom of Information request. Filing FOIPOP requests are of course something that few people actually do and answers to FOIPOP requests take a few weeks, at best, for governments to produce. A searchable database of council calendar appointments on HRM’s website would make more sense to me in terms of informing the public who Councillors are talking too and would be much more doable and complete than a registry. I’ll wait to see what comes back on this one.
- Awarded a tender for two new rescue pumpers, new software for the planning department,
- Approved sending letters of support for both the Airport and Port Authority’s applications for federal funding from the National Trade Corridors Fund
- Amended the Police Commissioners bylaw
- Wrote-off a whack of membership fees from Sackville Sports Stadium that had accumulated during 2007-2016 (there was no way to get out of a 1 year contract at that time so many people who weren’t going just stopped paying instead)
- Approved a contribution to the Fall River Water Project in recognition of the municipal property that will benefit along the line’s route (HRM usually recoups these costs from area rates and doesn’t impose the area rate on itself)
- Provided a grant for WE Day Atlantic
- Turned down a request for funding from Walk ‘n Roll
- Receieved a progress report on the implementation of the Western Common Wilderness Master Plan
- Requested a staff report on initiating the process to silence the train whistle on Oakfiled Park Road
- Requested a staff report on the creation of a municipal lobbyist registry