Preliminary debate Friday on Halifax's next budget hinged on how to balance the urgent call to fight climate change against how much additional tax pandemic-battered Haligonians can afford to pay.
"I've received some pretty angry emails," said Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace. "But I've also received appeals to, please, be the leader. You're the biggest urban centre in Atlantic Canada, show the rest of Atlantic Canada that we can do this."
The budget process for the 2022-2023 fiscal year is just beginning, with multiple debates ahead leading up to final approval in spring.
Last week, municipal staff unveiled a plan which included a 2.9 per cent property tax increase to cover operating expenses, plus a 3.0 per cent climate tax to fund efforts to curb the city's greenhouse gas emissions.
Halifax's climate plan, HalifACT, includes extensive retrofitting of municipal buildings to make them energy self-sufficient, and the electrification of Halifax's municipal vehicle fleet.
Some councillors said the prospect of a 5.9 per cent tax increase next year didn't play well with many constituents, prompting a flurry of complaints all week.
Coun. Trish Purdy from District 4 said she can't support the climate tax because of fears for constituents.
"I'm concerned about our people with this budget ... our seniors on fixed incomes who make up a lot of our residents," Purdy said.
"How many of them are already stretched thin trying to figure out how to prioritize the last few dollars as they see the prices of food and fuel and goods and insurance go up and up and up?"
Purdy said the intense financial stresses of COVID-19 make tax increases extra burdensome.
"I'm concerned about the optics of this. I'm concerned that it makes us look like we are completely unaware of the struggles that people are literally facing every single day with this pandemic," she said.
Councillors spoke passionately about the urgent need for serious measures on climate change.
Passion for climate action
"I'm not worried about the financial debt we leave our kids and our grandkids and their grandkids," said Coun. Shawn Cleary of District 9.
"I'm worried about infrastructure deficiencies we'll leave to our kids and grandkids because we are not prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change,"
Coun. Waye Mason of District 7 was blunt about the tight timeline to meet Canada's international commitment to reduce carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030.
"Every year we push this out it gets harder and harder and more expensive to hit the 2030 goals," Mason said.
"And I know COVID's been hard, and I know small businesses are struggling, but you know what? The cost gets higher and higher, and arguably exponentially higher as we get closer to 2030."
Mason used the example of the recent extreme rainfall in Nova Scotia to highlight the urgency of the situation.
"We were debating whether or not to fund the climate plan ... As they were declaring a state of emergency in Inverness and Guysborough and Victoria counties," Mason said.
Early days of budget debate.
"We saw the town of Merritt underwater last week in British Columbia ... You know what costs small businesses even more than a tax increase? The town being under water, the roads being closed for weeks in Cape Breton right now."
Council ultimately passed motions asking municipal staff to prepare budget scenarios with tax increases of 5.9 per cent and 3.7 per cent.
That will set the stage for councillors to closely examine the proposed budgets of all municipal departments with an eye to savings.
Councillors also raised the possibility of taking on debt to fund the HalifACT climate plan, or dipping into the municipality's contingency fund.
Budget debates are scheduled monthly starting in January.
The deadline to set the property tax rate for the next fiscal year is April 12.
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