HALIFAX — The three men vying to be Halifax’s next mayor took to the stage Wednesday afternoon for what was likely their only face-to-face meeting before the October 17 municipal election.
Max Taylor, Mayor Mike Savage, and Councillor Matt Whitman squared off in front of a largely virtual audience for the 2020 Mayoral Candidates Forum.
Hosted by a coalition of 14 business organizations and moderated by former CBC host Norma Lee MacLeod, the debate was the candidates’ best opportunity to sell themselves to voters. Each used a different strategy to try and accomplish that.
Throughout the debate, Whitman staked out his positions primarily by contrasting them with what he considers the council’s biggest mistakes.
Early on, he outlined what he felt those mistakes were.
“Spending taxpayers dollars on the CFL stadium, spending a ton of money snow plowing bike lanes for the 1.1 percent of HRM population that ride bicycles, the unenforced smoking bylaw, the armoured police tank that many of my colleagues did a flip-flop on… the paid statue task force to remove the Cornwallis statue,” he said.
The two-term councilor acknowledged the “wins” he and Mayor Mike Savage achieved together but said their major difference was spending, especially when it comes to the city’s Covid-19 recovery. He said he’d be “committed to watching the dollars” if he’s elected.
Savage, meanwhile, argued the city’s success over the past several years has been largely thanks to his leadership. He contrasted present-day Halifax to what he characterized as a failing city when he first took over the office.
“The city was struggling quite a bit. The population was not growing, the growth in the city was negligible, we had nothing happening in the downtown area, we weren’t preserving the lands that we should be preserving for generations to come, council was seen as widely dysfunctional. That’s the mantle when I became mayor and people went to work.”
Taylor, the latecomer to the race, pushed back against the idea that he was just a “TikTok candidate” and that his mayoral run is more publicity stunt than serious proposal.
“I did work for the city for two years, I did own a small business in Halifax last year, I have gone through the motions to understand how small businesses works. There’s a lot more to the story than people hear,” he said.
Taylor offered fewer policy specifics than his counterparts (he is the only candidate who hasn’t released a written platform) but spoke passionately about affordability, inclusivity, and access in the city.
He said Halifax’s future depends on the availability of affordable housing, more comprehensive transit options, and higher wages and that without major progress on those issues the city will struggle to attract new residents.
Over the course of the 90-minutes debate, the candidates weighed in on the removal of statues, defunding the police, diversity on city council, and the importance of environmental policy.
They also talked at length about these six key issues relevant to the city’s business community.
1) Covid-19 Spending
One good thing that has come out of Covid is now we’re going to start watching the bottom line better. We should have been watching it all along.” – Matt Whitman
One of MacLeod’s first questions to candidates was how well they thought the city had handled the Covid-19 crisis, particularly when it came to spending.
“There’s no guidebook” or “definitive solution to answer anything,” Taylor said.
Taylor complimented Savage on the “excellent” job he’s done managing the city’ Covid-19 response and proposed raising property tax slightly “on the top earners in the city” to fund Covid-19 relief initiatives.
Whitman was less generous in his assessment.
He pointed to mistakes he felt the municipality made in its response to Covid-19, lamenting lost revenues from waiving transit and parking fees. He said the city needs to tighten up its spending and suggested staff layoffs should have been deeper and happened quicker.
“One good thing that has come out of Covid is now we’re going to start watching the bottom line better. We should have been watching it all along,” he said.
Savage pointed out that the city cut $84-million from its budget this year. He pointed to what he believes were successful city initiatives like closing streets, extending patios, and waiving fees but said HRM “needs to do more from small business.”
He said he would lobby the provincial government to give some of the $380-million it made available for municipal financing to hotels as and restaurants as no-interest loans instead of giving it to municipalities.
2) Living Wage
If you’re a business that refuses to give a living wage, you’re a greedy business. That’s the way it is.” –Max Taylor
Savage also voiced strong support for a living wage in Halifax and argued the municipality has a responsibility to advance living wage initiatives.
“As a city, we should be a responsible employer. Minimum wage is not enough,” he said.
He argued HRM should give all its full-time employees a living wage, with small exceptions for students and part-time employees. He also floated the idea that the city should use its influence to ensure the companies it does business with are also paying their employees fairly.
“Even if it will cost the city some money I think we should do it,” he said.
Whitman argued that the HRM “already pays some of the highest wages in the municipality,” pointing to the city’s “overflowing” Sunshine List as proof.
Covid-19 has meant serious belt-tightening at the HRM and the city can’t afford to pay extra to make sure other organizations are paying living wages.
“With Covid this would be the worst thing we could possibly do to stifle the businesses that are trying to survive,” he said.
“We need to buckle down, not spend more on our staff in particular,” he added.
Taylor pointed out that the very definition of a “living wage” is the amount of money someone needs to live and said paying one shouldn’t even be a debate.
“If you’re a business that refuses to give a living wage, you’re a greedy business. That’s the way it is,” he said.
I think we’re past the time when people thought of immigrants as wealth takers and recognize now that immigrants now are wealth creators.” – Mike Savage
Several times during the debate, Savage pointed out that immigration has “fueled the growth” of Halifax over the past half-decade.
“I think we’re past the time when people thought of immigrants as wealth takers and recognize now that immigrants now are wealth creators,” he said.
He said he’s proud of the initiatives he’s promoted as mayor, and the partnerships with immigration agencies in the city, but said the city could do even more to make newcomers feel more welcome.
The biggest step, he said, would be to allow permanent residents to vote in municipal elections.
“People come here who own businesses, their kids are in school, they access the health care system. They are citizens in every regard except they can’t vote in municipal elections,” he said.
For Whitman, affordable housing and encouraging investment are two of the most important factors in promoting immigration into Halifax.
“You have to make housing affordable, you have to make it able so these new immigrants can take risks and invest their hard-earned dollars, reduce the red tape, make it possible for these folks to invest in HRM so they can raise their families here,” he said.
“I think we’ve done a good job of welcoming folks here, we’re told we’re very hospitable, but oftentimes are hospitality is thin.”
Taylor also flagged affordable housing as a barrier to attracting more immigrants into the city. People want to come to Halifax, he argued, but they won’t stay unless they can afford to live here and bring their families here.
“If we don’t have affordable housing solutions people won’t stay in Halifax,” he said.
4) Commercial Tax Rates
If we change the tax rates for one area than the dollars have to be found somewhere else from someone else.” –Matt Whitman
The provincial government has given HRM permission to tax different areas of the city at different rates, but candidates were, for the most part, hesitant to say if they would use that power.
“If we change the tax rates for one area than the dollars have to be found somewhere else from someone else,” Whitman said, calling taxation “one of the most difficult, ongoing conversation we’re going to have to have.”
He said the commercial tax system in the city “isn’t working” and that HRM will need to keep working with the province to decide if more changes were necessary.
Savage was equally evasive.
He said the city is trying to get to a “fair” tax situation, but that there is still some trouble attracting business development in certain parts of the HRM.
He said the city should try and find a way incentivize small and medium-sized businesses to open and that “marginally” increasing taxes on large “box” stores is “something that we should look at.”
“If you make less money you should probably pay less tax, regardless of where you are,: Taylor argued.
5) Red tape
I [followed] a long, hard process to start a little ice cream bike businesses that should not be as hard as it is.” -Max Taylor
Taylor said his experience trying to start a small business last summer proved to him that Halifax isn’t doing nearly enough to make it easy for young people like him to start a business.
“I [followed] a long, hard process to start a little ice cream bike businesses that should not be as hard as it is,” he said. “The reason there are not more businesses like that is that there are so many issues around building a business like that. You have to go through so many hoops, so many regulations, talk to so many people.”
“If it was as easy as going into an office and filling out ten forms we would have 1,000 more small businesses than we do in the city.”
Whittman agreed, arguing the city shouldn’t be making things more difficult by closing the offices people go to do business with the city.
Savage pointed out that he won the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses’ golden scissors award for his red-tape-cutting initiatives but acknowledged HRM “needs to do better” to reduce red tape.
6) Construction Mitigation
There are a whole host of projects coming down the pipe and we need to ensure that when we’re dealing with businesses… we’re doing it right.”- Mike Savage
With new developments happening across Halifax, many business owners have been asking to be compensated when construction projects hamper access to their businesses and cost them profits.
Taylor said small businesses in this situation should “absolutely” be compensated.
“Some of these construction companies could buy the small businesses a million times over. There’s no reason for them not to be compensated; for them not to be compensated is simply one word, and that’s greed,” he said.
Whitman argued it’s important to figure out if a business is actually being affected before handing out any compensation.
On Spring Garden Road, for example, he believes businesses were being hurt by construction and should be a program “where we can at least try to make good.” He believes the municipality should take money from the fees and permits paid by developers and put it aside to give it back to businesses affected by their activities.
Savage agreed that some businesses were being affected by construction and said the city has an “obligation” to communicate with them when this happens.
He pointed to a motion that will put 1 percent of project costs into a construction mitigation fund that will be doled out with the help of the city’s business improvement districts.