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Halifax Mayor not shy about tackling big issues shirked by province

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When you ask Halifax Mayor Mike Savage what he takes the "most pride in" from his first two years on the job, he doesn't mention the two balanced budgets with no tax increases, the $350 million debt at the time of amalgamation now wrestled to $260 million "while the province has gone from a debt of $8 billion to $15 billion…"

Well, that's not quite true. He does mention them, but as preamble to his claim council  is finally beginning to tackle "matter-to-people" issues -- housing, health, immigration, the arts -- it has traditionally left to other levels of government.

Before councilors began budget deliberations after the last election, he recalls, they got together for a priority-setting session. He and others raised the issue of affordable housing. "A number of councilors said, 'that's not our mandate.'… You don't hear that so much any more."

In October 2013, in fact, the city partnered with the United Way, the Affordable Housing Coalition of Nova Scotia and private sector developers to "leverage resources with the goal of making a measurable change on housing and homelessness." 

That same month, Savage hosted the Mayor's Conversation on a Healthy and Livable Community. The city has since "put some money" into translating talk into action, including improving "cycling connectivity" in the Halifax bridges' re-decking project, seeding an urban orchard and making outside-the-box steps to improve accessibility.

But the key is immigration. "We need people," Savage says flatly. Once again, the city partnered with other groups, including the Multicultural Association and the Immigrant Settlement Association. 

Savage, who hosted the first Mayor's Reception for International Students -- 400 showed up -- has also floated the idea of allowing permanent resident to vote. He laughs. It's been one of his most criticized initiatives -- "we judge everything by Twitter posts these days" -- but he argues "if we don't change, adapt and move, we'll decline."

Besides the usual yardsticks -- population growth, employment rate, housing stats -- Savage says he'll judge his first four-year term as mayor by less tangible measures. "Are people happy? Do they have confidence that we can be better than we are?"

Will he run again? "I don't know," he says. "I think it's very possible." 

He'll run again.


Image: Facebook/Mike Savage

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

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