My Halifax Regional Municipality Budget 2018, with Explanations, from its Budget Allocator

Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) did an innovative and democratic thing this year to have an interactive online Budget Allocator to let people try their hands at creating a municipality budget for the area, and submit it for City Council’s consideration. How much consideration each, or all the submissions might get, is another story, but I won’t be cynical here. I want to share my example of a cohesive budget that’s more than just the numbers, with rationale behind the choices, although the numbers are critical to make things work, of course. We’ll see when HRM presents its final budget, if it will do something similar to explain its choices in a way understandable to the general public.

The Budget Allocator is not a completely free flowing budgeting tool, constrained to reasonable multiple choices of increases or cuts to different parts of the total budget. However, this is more practical than a completely open budget tool that would require much more financial knowledge to try. You’d have to dig much deeper if you want to do anything revolutionary with the city budget, as I did in proposing limited free transit and proving it was feasible. But if you can show whatever you want fitted within a choice given on the Budget Allocator, as I did, then the rest is just filling out the rest of the budget to show how you’d shift everything else, since a full budget requires attention to all areas. That’s what did below, showing my submitted budget since the Budget Allocator doesn’t let you share your budget ideas, which would have been a nice feature to have.

Before I get into the details, it should be noted that the “budgets” shown on the Budget Allocator, and discussed below, are not budgets in the true sense of the words. More money is involved than shown. Rather, what’s shown the “budgets” below are the parts subsidized by taxes, because ultimately, that’s what will hit citizens’ pocket books. So increases will mean more taxes, at a rate of about $17 per average single family household per 1% increase in the overall “budget” (see red box in graphic at right from the Budget Allocator for 2018). Keeping that in mind, here’s the budget I created and submitted, with rationale for my choices. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

 

BUGDET OBJECTIVES

For the overall budget, there were two overarching objectives. The first was to allow it to increase by inflation last year, which is fair since costs rise. The second was to prioritize services people could go to or use directly, centered around the revolutionary, but affordable, idea of free public transit on weekends and holidays. This was to give people places to go and things to do, deemed of good value, with their increased mobility from free transit. Services less visible, especially bureaucratic ones and those with no information provided, were generally cut for budget increases given to priority items. It should not be hard to find more efficiency in them. The wide range of individual budget sizes within the overall budget also meant that making cuts in a few of the bigger items could get lots of more increases among smaller items. The only thing to check for is that the cuts would not have unacceptable consequences. Given the Budget Allocator put them on as options, though, without catastrophic warnings, all options should be at least tolerable, even if not necessarily popular.

Total increase. Inflation in NS last year was listed as 1.1% by Statistics Canada, as shown by the NS Department of Finance at right. As a result, it was deemed fair to allow for a 1.1% increase in the budget (really the portion paid for by taxes). By the time numbers were crunched by the Budget Allocator, the proposed budget was $454.07 M compared to $447.59 M last year.

Priorities. Overall, services and/or resources used directly by the general public were given priorities.

  • Top priority was to provide free transit on weekends and holidays, requiring a 6.6% increase to the Transit budget. A 10% increase was given as the Budget Allocator did not have a 6.6% increase option. However, the extra 3.4% would be well spent to provide additional service and maybe a few routes, to accommodate the anticipated increased ridership and to help make public transit more appealing.
  • Services people could go to and/or use, like parks, recreations, libraries, among others, were also given priority with increases, so people would have places to go and things to do with greater mobility from free transit.
  • Some services that were minor parts of the budget were also given increases to round up the overall budget to the 1.1% total increase. They practically had no impact on the overall budget, would be valued, and did not keep any larger services from getting a larger increase from choices in the Budget Allocator.
  • Services less visible to the public, like preventative fire services and general administrative services were reduced. They would challenged to find improved efficiency through process improvement and prioritization. I would be flabbergasted if they could not, to be honest.

 

PROTECTIVE SERVICES

 

ITEM Police
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET $79.40 M (17.5% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Would require operational areas to be re-evaluated, so that inflationary matters and increases in operational commitments can be absorbed within the existing budget.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Current police services are sufficient. I don’t doubt there are efficiencies to be found through prioritization, process improvement, among other methods. Not that much would be needed given inflation was 1.1% and should not be much more, if any, for their items of concern, so it should possible.

.

ITEM RCMP
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET $25.98 M (5.7% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET No information given.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Current RCMP services are sufficient. HRM probably doesn’t know the RCMP’s budgets and plans to comment on consequences of budget increases or cuts. Too important to cut, in my opinion. However, they should summarize what they got so we would know and maybe guess at whether or not it was worth the money to decide on cutting or increase the budget on some assumptions. It’d be better than having no information at all.

 

ITEM Fire
CHANGE -5%
BUDGET $58.10 M (12.8% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Would result in the loss of approximately 29 first class firefighter equivalents or 1.5, 24-7 stations or 6 -“E” Platoon stations.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Unlike police services where there are a lot of patrols, fire services exist more for preventative purposes, to be there when needed. While no one can predict exactly when fire services might be needed, given it is a minority of the time and there are patterns to needs, models can be created to minimize risk in fewer resources available from budget cuts. Besides, if 10% were acceptable as a choice in the Budget Allocator, it’d hardly be a big worry if a 5% cut were made.

 

ITEM Emergency Measures
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $0.29 M (0.1% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET No information given.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Not sure what this involves but given its miniscule size in the overall budget, the maximum 10% increase was given since it deals with risks, likely big risks, so this increase would be a wise investment. No choice taken for this measure would have impacted the overall budget in any noticeable way at 0.1% of the overall budget so it’s basically a non-factor in the whole picture.

 
 
 

COMMUNITY & RECREATION SERVICES

 

ITEM Recreation (Arenas, Aquatics, Programs, Community Centre, etc.)
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $10.87 M (2.4% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Could allow for an expansion of HRM recreation programming and additional supports for community run facilities in HRM.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Fully support and deem well worth the money.

 

ITEM Sports Fields & Playgrounds
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $7.75 M (1.7% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Could improve the service standards by increasing the frequency of replacing older play structures, and enable the backlog of retaining walls to be repaired (approx. $100,000).
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Fully support and deem well worth the money, though I would put more play structures than replace older ones more frequently. Replace them when they become unsafe, not because they are deemed old. Put new ones in and let users enjoy both as some will still use the old structures. For context, the $100,000 for retaining walls would be out of the about $700,000 in increase to this budget, so there would be lots left for new play structures.

 

ITEM Parks, Trails & Open Green Space
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $3.19 M (0.7% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Could allow for the replacement of some fencing and improvements to the major parks.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Fully support and deem well worth the money, though wouldn’t put a huge amount on the fencing except for protection from dangerous areas (as opposed to property dividers). Many other ways to improve parks besides fencing like more trees, picnic tables, etc.!

 

ITEM Municipal Compliance / By-Law Enforcement
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET AMOUNT $1.72 M (0.4% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Maintain current service levels which includes: a minimum standard of 650 Inspections; including 5,900 Bylaw service requests, 18,000 Bylaw inspections and 14,000 Animal control service requests.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Haven’t heard anything about these numbers being insufficient. If there were some insufficiency, find some improvements (process, regulatory, etc.) for greater efficiency to accommodate for it.

 

ITEM Libraries
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $22.87 M (5.0% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Will increase the number of eBook and other popular materials in order to shorten wait times and increase availability of materials for customers. Improve literacy and immigrant services programming. Expand services to neighbourhoods without a nearby library branch. Expand service hours, including expanded hours on Sunday for all branches and Monday service to six additional library branches.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Fully support and deem well worth the money.

 

ITEM Culture / Heritage / Events
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET AMOUNT $1.84 M (0.4% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Increase the number of events including community and neighbourhood events.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
While this may be nice to have more of, encourage community groups to lead more of these events and use the money more efficiently to support rather than lead or fully fund as many events as currently done.

 

ITEM Customer Service Centres & 311 Call Centre
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $3.23 M (0.7% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Introduce new services as a result of new technology (chat, additional on line transactions). Increase capacity to take on additional calls from other business units without chargeback for services.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
The chat and online transactions are the way to go. Many cities and other government levels are making use of this technology to provide better services. This would be well worth the increase provided for.

 

ITEM Transit
CHANGE +10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $88.66 M (19.5% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Would allow for work toward the purchase of replacement buses and to provide additional service hours.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Instead of this, allow free public transit on weekends and holidays with about 6.6% of that 10% increase. Provide more frequent service next priority, then new service, then additional hours. Replacement buses should have been accounted for in capital costs and would be done most years, possibly every year, with or without increase to the operating budget, so it’s not like no new buses would be bought without this increase. Besides, what kind of transit budget has to rely on increases to get new buses as if it’s never accounted for otherwise?

 
 
 

INFRASTRUCTURE

 

ITEM Road Maintenance
CHANGE +5%
BUDGET AMOUNT $15.44 M (3.4% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET As there are several existing backlogs, a 5% increase could be used to either address approximately 90% of guiderail work, or approximately 60% of drainage work, or approximately 18% of bridge repair, or approximately 3% of sidewalk work, or any suitable combination thereof.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
That’s good value for the money, and would be better if they chose better projects generally since some constructions are to roads questionable for needing work compared to some others.

 

ITEM Right of Way & Traffic Management (including Streetlights)
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET AMOUNT $12.49 M (2.8% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Maintain current service levels.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Those seem relatively good so no need for anything more.

 

ITEM Snow Removal & Ice Control
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET AMOUNT $25.66 M (5.7% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Maintain current service levels.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
This only seems insufficient in times of big storms. We may have more now with climate change but we have less frequent snow falling and remaining on the ground so keep it as is.

 

ITEM Solid Waste
CHANGE +5%
BUDGET AMOUNT $37.17 M (8.2% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Would provide for additional positions to increase education and awareness, respond to non-compliant reports and visit more non-residential and multi residential properties. More mobile household hazardous waste depots could be offered for each district and funding may be available to site a permanent depot in Dartmouth. Additional green cart collections for May and/or September, ability to collect recyclables weekly throughout the entire municipality and increase the number of bulk items collected are possibly areas where funding can be allocated.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Solid waste collection is an area needing some addressing and this seems well worth the increase. Had inflation been more to allow more increase in the overall budget to match it, or some smaller items’ increases given would have been larger, I would not have done that and given 10% here. As it stands, the additional 5% here with the size of it was better spread out in a handful of other budgets, in my opinion.

 
 
 

PLANNING & PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT

 

ITEM Regional & Community Planning, Urban Design and Transportation Planning
CHANGE +5%
BUDGET AMOUNT $4.97 M (1.1% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Ability to hire one additional planner dedicated to the Regional Centre Plan project; which represents a commitment by HRM to undertake planning and make investments to improve the Regional Centre.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
Some more planning needs to be done for this city, for sure. One additional planner was all the room I had in this budget proposal to allow. But let’s see what that one new planner is able to do with the team first for a year and consider more next year.

 

ITEM Development Approvals, Permits and Inspections
CHANGE 0% (maintain existing budget)
BUDGET AMOUNT $2.60 M (0.6% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET Maintain current service levels of processing an application within 5 business days.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
May not be the fastest turn around, but acceptable as it has been, and process improvement is likely possible to shorten it without budget increase knowing what I know of application processing, in general. I don’t think HRM is any different. I’d challenge them to find those.

 

ITEM Economic Development
CHANGE -5%
BUDGET AMOUNT $2.05 M (0.5% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET No information given.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
I’ve not been impressed with economic development over the past few years, and I’m not convinced a budget increase would have helped that. i’m far more convinced a revolutionary change like free public transit would not only spur more economic development, but also shake up the mind set of how economic development is done in HRM. I’m also convinced a 5% cut isn’t going to do anything noticeable, and it didn’t help no information was given on how any budget change would affect services. If you keep it a mystery, then don’t expect it to be taken seriously. I’d have cut it more if the extra cut were sufficient to provide for extra increases in other services like solid waste, but this was such a tiny portion of the entire budget it didn’t so 5% cut it was.

 
 
 

SUPPORT SERVICES

 

ITEM Chief Admin Office, Corp Communications, HR, Finance, ITC and Legal
CHANGE -10%
BUDGET AMOUNT $49.80 M (11.0% of proposed budget)
WHAT YOU GET No information was given.
REASON/S
BEHIND
CHOICE
This is the bureaucracy of the bureaucracy. Like any bureaucracy, there are definitely improvements to be made for greater efficiency. In HRM not giving anything information about what a 10% cut might mean in this “black box”, but touting it as an acceptable option in the Budget Allocator tool, I don’t have any hesitation to make the 10% cut and not worry about consequences.

 

 

 

SUMMARY

In summary, here’s what the original and proposed budgets would have looked like. It was also too bad the Budget Allocator did not provide something like this for context of how the pieces of the overall budget compared to each other.

Services Amount Proposed ($ M) No Change ($ M) Proposed Change
($ M)
Amount Proposed (%) No Change (%)
Police 79.40 79.40 0.00 17.5% 17.7%
RCMP 25.98 25.98 0.00 5.7% 5.8%
Fire 58.10 61.61 -3.51 12.8% 13.8%
Emergency Measures 0.29 0.26 0.03 0.1% 0.1%
Recreation (Arenas, Aquatics, Programs, Community Centre, etc) 10.87 9.88 0.99 2.4% 2.2%
Sports Fields & Playgrounds 7.75 7.05 0.70 1.7% 1.6%
Parks, Trails & Open Green Space 3.19 2.90 0.29 0.7% 0.6%
Municipal Compliance / By-Law Enforcement 1.72 1.72 0.00 0.4% 0.4%
Libraries 22.87 20.79 2.08 5.0% 4.6%
Culture / Heritage / Events 1.84 1.84 0.00 0.4% 0.4%
Customer Service Centres & 311 Call Centre 3.23 2.94 0.29 0.7% 0.7%
Transit 88.66 80.66 8.00 19.5% 18.0%
Road Maintenance 15.44 14.71 0.73 3.4% 3.3%
Right of Way & Traffic Management (including Streetlights) 12.49 12.49 0.00 2.8% 2.8%
Snow Removal & Ice Control 25.66 25.66 0.00 5.7% 5.7%
Solid Waste 37.17 35.40 1.77 8.2% 7.9%
Regional & Community Planning, Urban Design and Transportation Planning 4.97 4.74 0.23 1.1% 1.1%
Development Approvals, Permits and Inspections 2.60 2.60 0.00 0.6% 0.6%
Economic Development 2.05 2.16 -0.11 0.5% 0.5%
Chief Admin Office, Corp Communications, HR, Finance, ITC and Legal 49.80 55.33 -5.53 11.0% 12.4%
TOTAL 454.07 447.59 6.48 100.0% 100.0%

A percentage change in budget would have likely only confused, because these percentages are like slices of two slightly different sized pie. The key point to take from a percentage comparison among the two budget is that despite the changes in each portion of the overall budget, it has pretty much the same size slice out of the whole thing as last year. Nothing earth shaking is being done in terms of rearranging the numbers here, but lots of big changes could be visible if the numbers were shifted in certain ways, and if better value were gotten for the tax dollar in some cases.

Please leave comments to share any thoughts and questions you may have. Thank you.

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