Houston government plans to spend $1.6B again this year on roads, buildings, schools

Nova Scotia Finance Minister Allan MacMaster unveiled his capital plan to reporters in Halifax on Monday. (Paul Palmeter/CBC - image credit)
Nova Scotia Finance Minister Allan MacMaster unveiled his capital plan to reporters in Halifax on Monday. (Paul Palmeter/CBC - image credit)

The Houston government's capital plan for the coming fiscal year will be just as expensive and expansive as last year's, with the governing Progressive Conservatives looking to spend about $1.6 billion on infrastructure in 2023-24.

Finance Minister Allan MacMaster, who unveiled his capital plan to reporters in Halifax on Monday, said he expected Nova Scotians to "appreciate" all that spending — despite the hefty price tag.

"This money is going to fix essential items like schools and hospitals and the roads they drive on," MacMaster said. "I know that's something that's very important to Nova Scotians and I think when they look at investments that are being made like that, that are core investments that they derive value out of every day, I think they will appreciate the way this money is being spent."

According to documents provided by the province, the money will be spent on:

  • Highways, bridges and other structures ($485 million).

  • Buildings ($637 million).

  • Capital grants to outside agencies/organizations ($291 million).

  • Information technology ($84 million).

  • Land purchases ($52.5 million).

  • Vehicles and equipment ($19 million).

The province is also setting aside $52 million to cover inflation or unforeseen expenses.

"With the growing population, we need to address our aging infrastructure in health care, education, housing, roads and highways," said MacMaster. "All of these areas support our communities and keep our economy moving. In these times of change, it's time to move into high gear."

MacMaster was willing to talk about the $40 million the province plans to spend on modular classrooms for "bursting at the seams" Halifax-area schools and the $30 million it will shell out for school repairs. But he left it to Education Minister Becky Druhan to announce how the province plans to spend the lion's share of her department's $241-million capital budget.

"In the near future, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development will be sharing its updated five-year school capital plan which will outline their school capital projects for coming years, which will include new schools," said MacMaster.

The province is also setting aside $50 million in a new "strategic land investment envelope."

MacMaster said the money could pay for land or property the province might need to acquire in future.

"When it comes to property we don't want to put all our cards on the table," said MacMaster. "If we did we wouldn't get as good of a deal for taxpayers.

"So by socking this money away, it gives us the chance to be more visionary, taking a longer-term view and more strategic and, hopefully, getting better value when we purchase properties for things that we may need in the future, whether it's for a school or for expansion of a medical facility and so on."

The provincial government has come under fire in recent months for having paid top price for an unfinished hotel it plans to convert into a health facility to house patients that no longer need hospital care but cannot go home or be transferred to a care home.

Provincial parks are also getting some attention from the province this coming year. The capital plan includes $10 million for upgrades and repairs, including a new washroom at Lawrencetown Beach, accessibility improvements at Rainbow Haven Beach, and a parking lot, toilet and beach access at Carters Beach.

Housing strategy TBA in spring

Although the finance documents highlighted $21 million for public housing repairs and maintenance, there was no money set aside to build or purchase new units.

"Not in this plan," said MacMaster, who hinted at the possibility of more to come. "There is a housing strategy coming in the spring and I think that would be something for you to watch for."

Liberal Public Works critic Braedon Clark said while the money for upgrades and repairs was good news, the fact there was no money to build or buy new homes would be "cold comfort" to those waiting to get into public housing.

"There's a major housing crisis in the province," said Clark. "We've got almost 7,000 people on the waiting list for housing, many of them are waiting for years, a lot of them are seniors, a lot of them are people with young kids."

"And to not invest in construction and new units where people can live — I think — is a huge problem."

The NDP also noted the lack of investment in new public housing.

In a news release issued by the caucus office, Lisa Lachance, the MLA who speaks on government finance, said the capital plan failed to address "the needs of families and seniors who can't afford a place to live."

"We have thousands of families who are waiting to get help finding a place to live, and thousands more worried they may soon be unable to afford their home," Lachance said. "The Houston government's reliance on private developers will not solve the housing crisis."

Since taking office in August 2021 the Houston government has set up an advisory committee to fast-track housing developments in the Halifax area, has consolidated public housing under a single authority, and has invested millions of dollars in private developments.