Council Meeting, February 2, 2015

It’s been a crazy busy two weeks, I hope to be able to blog about some of it soon, as I went to a couple of events, and Council had a great Strategic Planning session. I also will have really cool website news coming up. But you will have to hold fast with my report of the fifth official Council meeting of the term which occurred on February 2nd. After Presentations and Open Delegations, the meeting usually starts with Recommendations from the Committee of the Whole from the afternoon. However as many of the open delegations were there to talk on the Brewery District issue, the Mayor moved that item up in the agenda to immediately follow the delegations, as a courtesy to the delegates (you can watch the video here).

Issuance of Development Permit for 200 Nelson’s Crescent

This is, of course, the first residential building in the Brewery District development. This will be a 15-story tower on top of a 2-story platform (which will be at underground when seen from the elevation of the Columbia Street side, but a tall 2 stories on the Brunette Ave side). I voted for this DP, and the Council unanimously supported it. There was some community opposition, so I think I will save the longer discussion of this project for another blog post (in the next couple of days). Stay tuned!

From the Committee of the Whole we discussed:

Additional committee appointments
Many of the City’s Advisory Committees have spots reserved for representatives from external agencies, such as Residents’ Associations, the Royal Westminster Regiment, and Fraser Health. Some of these appointments were later than the regular appointment schedule. So who is Council to say no?

Draft Financial Plan
This is the first time Council has had a chance to look at the updated financial plan, so there is much more to come on this in the upcoming month or so. The Staff proposal showed us two potential paths: maintaining the status quo as far as program delivery and the existing longer-term capital plan, which would result in a property tax increase of 2.75%; or increasing program spending in a few very specific places where they are needed to meet citizens’ expectations, which would result in an increase of 3.45%.

I have not had as much chance as I would like to dig through the financial documents, although the longer discussion we had in Committee of the Whole did clarify things quite a bit. There will be a fuller discussion, and the public will have a chance to tell Council what they think about the bigger budget picture before this update of the financial plan (and any subsequent tax increase) is formally adopted – discussion will ensue.

One thing I want to make clear is what a 3% tax increase means. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will pay 3% more than you did last year, although it will be pretty close to that. What it means is that the total amount of money the City receives fro mall taxpayers increases by 3% over last year. I gave a bit of an explanation of Mil Rates here a couple of years ago, but I’ll repeat the basic idea here in a very simplistic way.

Let’s pretend you owned a $100,000 house in New Westminster in 2014, and the City’s “mil rate” for taxes was 3. In that case, you would have paid $300 in taxes. If the City wants to raise taxes 3%, your mill rate will go up by 3% of 3, to 3.09 and you would pay $309 in taxes. But what if, in the same year, property values across the City went up by 5%? The City would still need 3% more to balance its budget, but to get $309 out of your now-$105,000 house, the actual mill rate would go down to 2.94. The fun part is what happens if, in the year that average city-wide property values go up 5%, your house doesn’t go up at all, but your neighbour’s house goes up by 10%. That 2.94 mill rate means you pay $294 in taxes (a 2% decrease) while your neighbor pays $323 (a 7.5% increase).

There are a few other little intricacies. One point to think about is that new properties (for example, the first time a high rise starts paying full property tax on the residential properties, not the abandoned gravel lot it was before) means new taxes, which eats away at that 3%. This is a big reason why a City like Surrey, where new houses are popping up out of the forest every day, can have low Mil Rates – a lot of the annual tax increase required to provide the services people want comes from new lands paying taxes for the first time.

Anyway, this is the start of the discussion – Council has not decided on what the tax increase will be next year. My cursory look at the numbers suggests something very close to 3%, but lots of discussion to come before any kind of decision is made.

Q2Q Bridge update
The Q2Q pedestrian bridge between the Quayside and Queensborough is moving forward. Council is very supportive of this plan, the majority of the money is in place. We are looking at Grants and other opportunities to top up the fund. The City is also working with stakeholders (Southern Railway, Marine Carriers, Port Metro Vancouver, etc.). The Bascule Bridge design was clearly preferred in public consultations, which is fortunate, because it was also the preferred design from the parallel process evaluating the technical aspects of the project.

The benefits of the low-bascule design Benefit of this bridge are many- low visual impact, the preferred location does not impact the Submarine Park, it is safer location from a ship allision risk (“allision” is the nautical term for when a mobile object like a barge runs into a non-mobile object like a pier, when two mobile things collide, it is called a collision. (learn something new every day). This option will also allow the bridge to be useable as an emergency crossing for safety vehicles, to being able to carry an ambulance and/or police vehicle.

The bridge is coming. There are a lot of hoops to jump through yet, but some time in 2017 or 2018, Quayside residents will be able to take a short stroll over to Frankie G’s.

Amendment of Taxi Bylaw
Two Taxi Companies are licensed to operate in New Westminster, and both of them have applied for more licenses. The provincial agency that regulates taxis did not give them all of the new licenses they wanted (a combined 17 more licenses), but instead gave them two each. The regulation requires that the City also approve these license, and because that takes a Bylaw change, we need tot go through a public process to change the bylaw.

This reflects back at how an amazingly high pile of regulations exist around taxis. The number of cars, the types of cars, the rates they may charge, even where taxis can pick up or drop fares, is regulated. In the world of Uber and the internet-enabled sharing economy, this is a situation that will be coming to a head in the next few years. It will be an interesting file to watch develop.

Shops at New West Station Noise Variance
This building project is the first of two going on that will re-shape New Westminster Station. Building the cover that will keep the platform level dry will make for a more comfortable environment for the retailers and passengers. TransLink is talking about some significant changes to the station as well, including replacing a lot of metal mesh with glass and updating the elevators and escalators. All good stuff.

Unfortunately, working around the SkyTrain means working around the heavily trafficked transit times, which means much of the construction must happen in the middle of the night. It is a bit disappointing that this project has been so delayed that they need to come back to the City for an extended noise variance, but it sounds like they are doing a good job addressing issues that arise, and the end will be soon!

Our CITY Visioning committee appointments
We talked last meeting about the Our City visioning event coming up in mid-February, and approved the Visioning Advisory Group volunteers. However, since we discussed it last, two more Residents Associations have nominated representatives. So who is Council to say no?

646 Ewen Avenue rezoning
This is a rezoning for a new single-family home in Queensborough. The rezoning is generally aligned with the goals of the recently-developed Queensborough Neighbourhood Plan. This report is to get the rezoning process started, as community consultation, committee and staff review have yet to take place, so I’ll reserve comment for this time.

Front Street Parkade project update
The west half of the Parkade is coming down in 2015, and a newly-designed Front Street between Begbie and 6th Streets is being designed. As much as I wish the east half of the Parkade was going as well, the Downtown Parking Study and community consultation have made the case for investing in necessary repairs of the East Parkade, so we will be keeping it for a few decades yet. Those repairs are going to come with some significant upgrades, including replacing the no-longer-conforming railing with a screen and mural design.

This is a multi-phased project, and will have profound effects on the waterfront the New Westminster. In this report, staff is outlining the project schedule, and a detailed public consultation process combined with a comprehensive business support plan to help the building owners and small businesses along Front Street weather the storm (always keeping in mind that after that storm, the sun will finally shine on Front Street, for the first time in 50 years). I to frequent a few of the businesses down there ,and yes, they are concerned what a 3-month long demolition project, followed by another 3-month road construction project, will do to their businesses. I’m hoping the City, the BIA and the businesses on Front Street can work together to mitigate the disruption. As a New Westminster resident, you can help by spending a bit of time and money down on Front Street overt the next year, and help our small business community out.

The fixing of the east half will occur through 2015, and will be mostly complete before the removal of the West Parkade, which should occur in the fourth quarter of 2015. The re-forming of Front Street will occur in early 2016.

Fibre Optic Network Business Plan
This is an exciting new project the City is spearheading. Using our existing road and electrical infrastructure, the City is going to install “Dark Fibre” such that 1GB “Broadband” service will be available for most businesses and many residential areas of the City. This is a huge economic opportunity for the City, and will provide us one of the missing pieces for the development of a real knowledge-based economy sector in the City. I want to expand on this in a future blog post (and clarify the stretched allegory I tried to develop during the Council Meeting), so stay tuned, and I will try to pump something out this week.

Investment Report
The City has about $100 Million in the bank. It isn’t all cash – we can’t just draw it out and build a new swimming pool with it. Much of it is already earmarked for various purposes. Some represent money put into reserves for some utilities – i.e. a small portion of your water bill goes in to a reserve fun to build new water pipes when they meet the end of their life. Some are Development Cost Charges – fees we collect from developers when they put in new building to fund necessary infrastructure improvements that will be required by the new population they are building houses for. For a variety of reasons, the City builds up these reserves, and we spend them when the time is right.

While sitting on them, however, we collect interest, and the funds are invested in a larger fund called the Municipal Finance Authority. Because of the size of the fund and the great management of the funds, we make pretty good returns. In many cases, we make more money from the interest on these funds than we pay in interest on some of the loans we take out to fund other projects.

I’m simplifying things a bit, but this report shows our reserves are doing pretty well as far as a managed investment. Deciding how we are going to manage our reserves in the long-term is part of the bigger discussion around the annual Financial Update that I alluded to above.

Plumbing fixtures in accessory buildings
People have been converting garages and sheds into living space. That is a problem. It violates zoning laws, has impacts on neighourhoods, and allows people to cheat on property taxes and utilities. Increasingly, these conversions are done without proper permits, meaning that the places where people are living may not meet building codes, which could actually threaten the lives and health of the people living in these spaces.

One way to get around the permitting process is to “rough in” plumbing to an accessory building, but not install it. Once the inspections are done, and the building is signed off, you illegally install the plumbing features that attach to those roughed-in pipes, and attached the kitchen and bathroom fixtures. A little bit of drywall and some shelves, and all of the sudden you have a rentable suite.
Most cities limit the type of plumbing you can put in an accessory building to avoid this problem, staff recommended we do so as well. If you have a garage with a workshop in it, you will still be able to have a sink, or a small bathroom (without a shower), but you will not be able to have multiple sinks, and a bathtub, essentially making it much harder to install a kitchen and bathroom in these buildings.

As a side note, the issue of Laneway Housing will be a part of the OCP process- there are some nieghbourhoods and locations where laneway houses may make sense in the New Westminster, and the OCP process and adaptable Zoning is the way to get there, not the building of illegal suites in the hope that the City will let them get by. Frankly, as a City councilor and a Municipal Employee, I have no tolerance for people who flaunt building codes and zoning. Fundamentally, it isn’t fair to the neighbours, and hurts the livability of the City.

Meeting Schedule Adjustment
Finally, the new Mayor is making further adjustments to streamline how Council operates. We are looking at reducing the work we do in “Committee in the Whole” when that work can more easily take place in the evening meeting. Part of the plan is to open up Committee of the Whole time to allow for more detailed issue-oriented “workshops”. There will mostly still be open meetings of Council (unless we are working on topics that need to be in camera), but will allow us, as a Council, to dig down deeper into specific initiatives or topics, in the interest of moving those things forward more quickly. So some adjustment of the Council Schedule has to take place to make that happen.

And that is it for Groundhog day. I have two topic above I hope to get blogs out on before we meet again in mid-February. Enjoy Family Day everyone!

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