Halifax council picked up where they left off Wednesday, debating how the municipality should respond to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the municipality’s finances.
On Tuesday afternoon, CAO Jaques Dube presented the municipality’s plan to cut $85 million from the budget.
The goal is to help bridge the revenue gap and economic shortfalls already experienced as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.
The municipal staff report asks council to approve the $85 million worth of funding cuts to business units like fire and emergency, police, parks and recreation, and corporate customer services.
But before the debate on the budget cuts could begin, Coun. Waye Mason tabled a motion requesting staff to take a second look at some of the proposed budget cuts.
Staff would be required to bring back a supplementary report, exploring alternatives to some previous recommendations.
Mason said he didn’t want to see the municipality reducing staff capacity and other services during the pandemic when the need has never been greater.
“The need for us to be fully staffed and to be able to deliver active transportation projects, for us to deliver transformations to our streets, for us to stay on top of development applications, and building permits and all the things that are going on,” said Mason.
“The idea of us having a hiring freeze right now, I don’t think helps us at all. We need to make sure those positions are filled so we have that capacity both for now, during this phase of living with COVID and in the recovery phase.”
CAO Jacques Dubé said they can come back with a staff report but stressed that the municipality has a cash flow problem right now.
Dubé said the municipality will lose $44 million in revenue this year with approximately $20 million of that from Halifax Transit.
“We are trying to set up a situation where this year we can get through it without a tax increase by maintaining a basic level of services,” said Dubé.
“Next year is a whole different situation. During this pandemic, we’re learning new things every day and every month. It’s very difficult to predict what could happen or may happen.”
One of the proposed budget cuts listed in the staff report included the slashing of $5.3 million to Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency services.
It was a recommendation that didn’t sit well with many councillors, including Coun. Steve Adams, who spoke out against cutting funding to fire and emergency services during a pandemic.
The proposal would see the municipality close fire station 11 located in Upper Sackville, which is in Adams’ district.
Overtime hours would be reduced, the allowed vacancy rates would be increased, a temporary hiring freeze and a reduction in recognition of volunteer firefighters are also on the table.
The Halifax Regional Police Force is looking at cutting $5.5 million from its budget.
The proposed cuts include a hiring freeze, along with not filling 18 positions as a result vacancies and 10 positions as a result of retirements. Crossing guard staff would also be laid off for the remainder of the year while school is shut down due to COVID-19.
Speaking to the motion and the proposed budget cuts, Mayor Mike Savage said this is uncharted territory.
He said “there’s no handbook” on how to recast a budget during a pandemic.
“Supporting this motion doesn’t mean we support every part of it,” said Savage.
“It means having a look at options. I think it’s a good motion and I think we have to take a hard look at some of these issues that are in front of us.”
The motion was approved in a vote, with only councillors Matt Whitman and Paul Russell voting against it.
Whitman said he agreed with the initial staff report and all measures that have been made, including the decision to lay off more than 1,400 casual and seasonal workers.
He said his decision came down to priorities during a fiscally challenging time.
“Many of the cuts, almost all of the cuts I would say were necessary,” said Whitman. “The hiring freeze is necessary, the vacancy management work is necessary, and to slow down for a staff report when we’re hoping to have this done by June 1st, I’m afraid it might set us back.”
Coun. Sam Austin voted in favour of seeking a supplementary staff report in order to get a deeper understanding of some of the risks and benefits associated with these proposed cuts.
“I feel like we are coming into this a couple step down the line,” said Austin.
“In part what I like about councillor Mason’s motion is it gives us some options to rethink maybe there is another path to this. It’s hard to be comfortable with what is proposed.”
Dubé said there’s a tight timeline to have the budget cuts set in place and the goal is to have the recast budget prepared and ready for council approval by June 1st.