Halifax Mayor Mike Savage billed himself as both a politician and the municipality’s chief marketer when he took over from Peter Kelly.

He’s had two months to become accustomed to the new role, and some of his priorities have already found their way onto council’s agenda.

Savage, a former member of Parliament, spoke with The Chronicle Herald this week about the direction in which he hopes to take the city. He wants to focus on economic development — through community partnerships, tax reform and cutting red tape for developers. Longer-term goals include a municipal transit plan looking at integrated buses, ferries and biking routes and the likelihood of commuter rail.

And, although council has appeared divided on the issue of affordable housing, Savage said the municipality needs to play a role, both through permits that allow for density bonusing and by connecting non-profit organizations with the upper levels of government. Right now, the province is responsible for affordable housing through the Community Services Department.

Q: It’s been a very busy two months for you and I’m wondering how you think you’ve done and what it’s been like.

A: It’s been pretty good, I believe. I’ve been particularly pleased with the new council and how we’ve all worked together, I think it’s been positive and I’m excited about that and I’m going to keep working at that.

Q: Can you compare the learning curve as mayor to the one you had as an MP?

A: They’re very, very different. As a member of Parliament, I was elected in June and the House didn’t sit until maybe October, so even though I moved relatively quickly, you had a fair bit of time to open an office and … it was an easier transition, frankly. As mayor, I was elected on a Saturday and on the Monday I was starting to get briefings on issues (that were) upcoming, like the budget, as well as getting ready to run a council meeting. It’s just a lot to learn in a very short period of time. and it’s a very busy transition when you get elected as mayor.

Q: What’s it been like making that transition, not having the party system and role models to help guide you through the process?

A: People malign the party system a lot, and in some cases for good reason. It does lead to a much more rigid type of policy-making and strategy and things like that. But on the other hand, it does bring a discipline to the process that is actually easier. As a municipal councillor or mayor, you form alliances on every issue. The key is (to) find a way to work together when, quite often, you’re not going to be agreeing on some issues but on others you will. As mayor, you have to be aware that while there are issues that may matter a lot to you and you want to have an influence on, you (have) to work with 16 other people … who have every right to their opinions.

But democracy was never meant to be easy. It requires effort, and at the municipal level it probably requires more effort than anywhere else.

Q: Something we’ve seen, particularly in the setting of municipal priorities, is that there seemed to be less parochialism and more of a focus on the big picture. As someone who is coming into this with fresh eyes, do you think that’s the case? And if so, what’s changed?

A: I think that there was a commonly held view that city council was not running 100 per cent smoothly. On the other hand, 13 out of 16 of those on council were re-elected, most of them quite resoundingly. They would have every reason to say … ‘My priorities and the way I run the affairs of my district have been endorsed.’ But I give a lot of those folks credit, because they recognize that there’s a bigger picture here, which is that we all have to work together on some common goals. I think council has worked very well together the last couple of months … and other councillors have told me the same thing.

Q: One of the things council seems somewhat divided on is the issue of affordable housing, whether it should be left to the province or if the municipality has a responsibility as well. Who do you think is responsible?

A: Well, it depends on what you think of as a municipal role. I don’t think any of us is saying the city should go out and buy a bunch of buildings and turn them into affordable housing (units). That’s not what we’re talking about. But I think when it comes to something like affordable housing, there is a role for the municipality, clearly in terms of zoning and permits and things like that. But beyond that, I’ve always believed that anybody who lives in our community is our responsibility, jointly, along with the federal government and the provincial government. To me, it’s an issue of working together (with) the private sector as well, which is stepping up in very significant ways, like working with the Community Action on Homelessness. I don’t think it’ll be a stumbling block for us to be involved as an enabler. I just think we have to work out what that role is and I’m very confident that we will.

Q: What is that role?

A: Bringing people together, organizations together, along with other levels of government if necessary, and (asking) ‘What is the problem here?’ I mean, other municipalities have housing strategies, and if you go from province to province, there are different mechanisms for who has responsibility for social services. But regardless of jurisdiction, I think the city can be a real enabler in finding solutions. After all, these are our streets, these are our people, so I believe that these are our challenges. By working with other levels of government, the private sector and organizations, we’ll find some solutions.

Q: You’ve said before you don’t want developers or businesses to ‘get a yes from somewhere else and a maybe from Halifax.’ How does that translate into specific municipal policy?

A: I think that translates in a big way. I think that there’s strong evidence that development has been tied up in too much red tape in Halifax. And that’s not to blame the people in the planning process.

But we need to look to see if we have enough resources in that (planning) department, and secondly, to make sure that our processes are aligned so we can deal with applications in a timely manner. In some cases, it may mean we get to a no faster than before, but in other cases it may mean we get to a yes faster.

Most of our revenue as a city comes from property tax, so if you accept that that’s the case, if we can have more people paying tax, that’s a good thing. Now there have to be safeguards around development and that’s why HRM by Design is a mechanism that’s worth supporting, because it does put certain standards in place and (as a result) we have a faster development process. We can reduce red tape, which is something the CAO and I agree on and are working on.

Q: So when you say that, are you talking about a shorter path to getting a development agreement?

A: Absolutely. That’s what I want. It’s not always going to mean yes. There are all kinds of reasons — environment, heritage — why some developments should not go ahead. But what we don’t want to do is have them die on the vine because of how long it takes to get stuff done.

Q: Talking about taxes, one of the recent suggestions by staff is to look at linking commercial taxes to the gross domestic product rather than residential rates. How do you feel about that?

A: I talked during the campaign about the need to revisit tax reform. It made sense, in my view, to start with commercial taxes. But it’s not as simple as people might think it is to change the tax system. Most municipal tax systems, certainly in Canada, are based on assessed value. But are there other ways of doing it? Can you look at square footage? The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies have both talked about income-based property tax. Am I sold on that? No. But I think we need to have a look at the tax system and see if there’s a better way of doing it.

Q: Going back to the idea of connecting it to the gross domestic product, Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said he’s concerned that would be a tax on growth. So specifically, what do you think about the idea of linking commercial taxes to the gross domestic product?

A: I’m not putting a thumbs-up on anything or a thumbs-down on anything. I think there are too many options to look at.

Q: Trade Centre Ltd. has been the subject of two auditor general’s reports. How are you planning to look at that next year with Ticket Atlantic revenues and the management of the new convention centre?

A: There’s going to be a new governance structure to a competency-based board. And I thought Coun. (Darren) Fisher was very wise when he suggested recently that one of the municipal representatives on the board should be a senior financial person from city staff. I’ll be on that board as well, and it’s something we intend to pay pretty close attention to. The new convention centre’s going to be very important to us … and I’m very optimistic about the potential for Trade Centre.