Live City Check-In—One-on-One with Halifax Mayor Mike Savage

A candid conversation with Halifax Mayor Mike Savage on how his city is dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 and what the short, medium and long-term impacts on the city could look like

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Keep the buses running

Cities are going to have to make some hard decisions in terms of finding efficiencies and cutting services. But transit service is non-negotiable. Mayor Savage shared his emphatic opinion that if Halifax had stopped transit service when the crisis first broke, the city would have stopped functioning – it’s as simple as that. Essential workers – such as cleaners, sanitary workers, home-care workers, and supermarket clerks – continued working, and a lot of these workers depend upon public transit. At a loss of $3 million per month to the city’s coffers, it’s the cost of doing business and having universal access.

2. Floating new ideas for mobility

In the spirit of thinking outside the box, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) has an integrated transport plan aimed at “future-proofing” the city, that will build on the lessons learned from COVID-19. In addition to looking at the redesign of buses and routes, they are doubling down on bolstering cycling as a commuter option, and importantly, looking at options that more fully utilize the vast harbour and abundant waterways that connect the region. The Mayor said that federal recovery funds must invest in sustainable municipal transportation systems. “This should not be seen as bailout, but a viable tool for investing in the future of cities,” the mayor said.

3. Take off the handcuffs

Municipalities are bound by legislative and financial frameworks that no longer make any sense. There were challenges with other levels of government pre-COVID, and now they are stark and irrefutable. Municipalities can’t borrow to cover operational expenses — they only collect about 10 per cent of taxes while providing much more in services that are very expensive such as transportation, and police and fire. “Give us a charter that contains exclusions, instead of permissions, so as to not restrict, but enable,” Mayor Savage said.

4. Paying it forward

Mayor Savage predicts the costs associated with COVID-19, and the recovery process, will take a generation to pay back. He strongly believes that government at all levels have the best interests of cities at heart. The response to COVID-19 has shifted the orders of government into windows of collaboration and cooperation. However, “coming back to life will be done in the cities, therefore, it is imperative to allow cities more independence and flexibility,” Mayor Savage continued. Cities don’t have access to the revenue tools that they need, and financial problems with liquidity and revenue are anticipated.

5. Stronger together

Cities are not only looking for money, but they want to be part of the solutions going forward.  Pre-COVID, Halifax was undergoing a growth phase, with a strong environmental influence. An expansive geographic region, HRM covers 55 sq. km and includes 900 parks and trails. Halifax had the foresight to invest in an urban wilderness reserve and strong policies that protect farmland within the city limits. “We will learn from this for a long time,” stated Mayor Savage. He concluded by calling for better cooperation and recognizing that we’re “stronger together.”

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