In the heat of the municipal elections race, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) revealed its first ever alternative municipal budget for Halifax, hoping its progressive economic, governance, social and environmental suggestions will make their way into council chambers.
“We really wanted to get those ideas out now, circulating in the community, so they are debated in the election and in place for the new council,” CCPA-NS director Christina Saulnier told a packed audience at a press conference Tuesday morning. “We want our councillors, candidates and communities to consider now what they want from our city.”
The CCPA-NS laid out 65 action items in A Sustainable Vision for our Community: Alternative Municipal Budget for the Halifax Regional Municipality. It is the product of a collaborative effort involving more than 20 individuals from academia, the non-profit sector and labour groups.
The budget’s first of six guiding principle speaks to this collaborative mindset: it encourages strengthening good governance by engaging HRM residents in the consultations surrounding the municipal budget. Councillors should be more accessible, too: the budget calls for municipally funded councillor offices in their districts.
In addition, the CCPA-NS suggests a Buy-Local Public Procurement Policy, which will reinforce the importance of bringing ongoing services back in-house; that is, to refrain from contracting out to non-HRM companies. The group also sees the need for a living wage policy for City employees, contractors and subcontractors.
On the social side of things, the CCPA-NS budget stresses the creation of safe, inclusive environments through broadening the scope of the Diversity Works office, reinvigorating the Community & Race Relations Advisory Committee, and forming a new LGBTQ Advisory Committee and women’s equality and policy action plan.
The budget outlines increased community liaising when it comes to public safety as well. It suggests a program to help Halifax Regional Police develop community-appropriate responses by putting them in touch with LGBTQ, immigrant and other cultural groups. As well, it wants to see the police focus on diversity and empathy training, in addition to more education on citizen rights and the limits of police power.
Other social programming includes $10.1 million allocated to early learning, childcare and support for families.
As part of a larger focus on improving quality of life in the HRM, the CCPA-NS budget strives to boost arts and culture funding in the city. Budget collaborator Hugo Dann quoted a recent study at the press conference that indicates Halifax has the worst per capita funding for the arts for a city of its size. It allocates $0.53 per person, compared to the national average of $5.35. The alterntive budget looks to increase this per capita funding to $5.71, with a target of $3 million annually reserved for the arts.
This hugely increased funding will go toward the establishment of an Independent Arts Council, re-creating the municipal Cultural Affairs division, and various paid project and granting opportunities for local artists.
“We have an amazing cultural sector. Amazing. It is breathtaking,” said Dann, who added with disbelief, “There is no purpose-built symphony concert hall, ballet-opera house in this city.” The budget provides for such a venue, in addition to investing in community-owned cultural spaces such as the Bloomfield Centre.
The CCPA-NS also looks to enhance communities by devoting $2.3 million to Halifax Public Libraries and $12.1 million for a variety of recreation and community centre improvements. This proposal includes the creation of an LGBTQ Community Centre, support for the existing LGBTQ Youth Project, and a 50 per cent fee cut for all recreation services. As well, the CCPA-NS wishes to see a stop to all public-private partnerships in this sector, starting with Molson Coors Brewing Co.'s and Emera Inc.'s naming rights money for the Oval.
To further enhance community living, the budget encourages the use of public and active transportation, directly investing $20 million in the former and $23 million in the latter. The budget provides for a light rail system between Truro and Halifax for $31 million and a Bedford-Halifax ferry. Part of these expenses will be subsidized through bridge surcharges and discontinuing plans to widen Bayers Road.
As much as the Ships Start Here contract may contribute to this city’s revenue, the CCPA-NS stresses that the revenue must benefit all HRM residents by contributing to all aspects of city life. The group sees the support of co-operatives through the creation of a Centre for Promotion and Co-operative Enterprise, and incentives and tax rates targeting co-operatives, as viable outlets for the contract revenue.
Another direction for the money is affordable housing and rent control. The budget suggests that 15 per cent of all new housing developments must be designated as affordable housing. It also sets aside $15 million for community-based supportive housing, student housing co-operatives, and artist-run spaces and housing.
Aside from these HRM-specific goals, the budget seeks to evaluate the municipality’s place in and impact on the environment. It proposes a $5 million greenbelt around HRM and a $20 million Halifax Atmospheric Fund, which includes the acceptance of the Solar City Project, to reduce greenhouse gas emission and air pollution.
The environment section of the budget pays attention to food security, delineating grants for community gardens and kitchen, farmers markets, three HRM Community Food Centres, and programming on food security.
Although the majority of the 79-page budget focuses on expenditures, the CCPA-NS offered wide-sweeping changes to revenue, too—changes that, if its numbers are correct, would more than cover its proposed spending.
The group suggests a move away from the municipality’s dependence on property tax (80 per cent of the city’s revenue currently stems from it) and toward income tax. It proposes a surcharge on provincial income tax that would come back to the municipality. This surcharge would bring in $50 million, allowing the city to reduce property tax by $20 million for a total revenue of $30 million from taxes. The CCPA-NS also wants to institute a major shift in flow-through property taxes to the government.
Other revenue sources include an energy efficiency tax for commercial buildings, an empty lot fee on assessed property value, a commercial parking space tax, a disposable cup tax, and an infrastructure charge for new, single, detached units.
Although many of the proposed budgetary items can be instituted at the municipal level, the budget acknowledges that municipal governments in Canada are plagued by “unclear jurisdictional responsibilities, with limited authority and often unclear jurisdictional financing capacities.” It stresses, therefore, that the HRM council must push the Nova Scotia Legislature for more power in governing how Halifax is run.
To some, the budget may seem unattainable, as if turning the city’s governance, and its finances, on its head.
Saulnier doesn’t think so. She addressed the magnitude of the changes CCPA-NS is proposing facetiously, “If there’s something the federal government has shown us, [it's that] change, deep change, is possible in a very short period of time.”