Halifax is facing a $1.3-million overall deficit — and municipal officials are blaming the city's fire service for going $2.9 million over its budget. But increased revenue from investments has decreased the total amount the city will need to find before the end of the year.
The numbers were presented Wednesday to the city's audit and finance committee.
Officials told the committee that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency has been backfilling 25 vacancies and hiring more staff to meet new standards approved by the city's Regional Council. The new standards mean there will be four firefighters on every truck instead of three.
Still, Coun. Steve Craig says the situation leaves him puzzled.
"The decisions that we made were well-known," he said. "Did we not get the forecasting and the timing right?"
'Didn't match what was set out'
Some financial processes will have to change as a result, Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé admitted.
"We accelerated the hiring and it didn't match what was set out in the budget," said Dubé. "And there were no warning signals in the system to alert us that this was happening."
Regional Council should take a lesson from this situation, says Coun. Russell Walker.
"This is what happens when we don't close fire stations," he said. "Adding things has consequences."
Halifax is legally required to balance its books by the end of the year. But Dubé says that will mean belt-tightening across all municipal departments.
"It is highly unlikely that we could balance the budget within fire, given the situation we are in today," he said.
Update on 5 strategic capital projects
The audit and finance committee was also shown a presentation Wednesday on five strategic capital projects, totaling $118.4 million. These include:
- The Halifax multi-pad arena.
- The Dartmouth multi-pad arena.
- The Dartmouth Sportsplex renovation.
- The five-year downtown investment.
- The Cogswell Interchange.
The city is currently short $23.9 million for these projects.
Part of the funding is supposed to come from the sale of a dozen municipal properties, including the Bloomfield site, the former Red Cross building, and four rinks in Dartmouth and Bedford. Only a couple of them have so far been sold.
Regional Council also changed its mind on the Halifax multi-pad project; instead of cost-sharing a building with the military, the municipality decided to expand the Halifax Forum.
A 10-year capital plan is expected within a few months, but finance officials insist none of the projects will be delayed. In fact, the chair of the audit and finance committee says the municipality's finances are in good shape.
"Our debt is low, our reserves are healthy, and we planning for the future," said Coun. Bill Karsten.
As for any new large projects, Mayor Mike Savage has his own plan.
"We're going to have to go to other levels of government and say we're going to need help."