Council April 20, 2020

Yes, we had a Council meeting this week. It was again on-line using video chat software, and we have a recorded version if you want to read the agenda and follow along at home. Here is my recollection of what we did.

Draft 2020 – 2024 Financial Plan
Well, here we go again. The City spent an unprecedented amount of time and effort this spring doing public outreach, holding meetings and open houses, inviting residents and businesses in to talk about the budget. We provided tables, spreadsheets, lists of priorities, and visions for the future. Then we asked New Westminster to respond – tell us what we got right, and where we were missing the mark. We go a lot of feedback, and were ready to put together a budget that provided not just the normal financial plan, but a vision for how the City was going to do things differently on important files like Climate, Transportation, Childcare and Housing.

Then a month ago, all hell broke loose. Grumpy face emoji.

By legislation, we are required to provide a 5-year Financial Plan to the province in May, and to get there we need to write it into a Bylaw, and pass that Bylaw through the appropriate process. The Financial Plan is a complicated document based on well-established accounting principles and best practices established by the Public Service Accounting Board and reviewed by independent auditors every year. That said, it is always (by its nature and purpose) the best available estimate of the City’s financial position over the next 5 years. Some revenues and expenses in this budget we have complete control over, some we don’t.

All that to say this year is a very difficult year to make those estimates. We are preparing this financial plan in the middle of a crisis, likely at the cusp of a significant recession. It is challenging to project what the impact of this will be with the conservative certainty that needs to rest in a financial plan. Compared to what we looked at early in 2020 and sent for early public consultation, the biggest change now is to reduce the amount of money we are committing to new initiatives, and to pare back on capital expenses until we have some more certainty. The tax increase will not be as big as originally proposed, but we are not yet able to account for many of the other lost revenue in 2020, because we simply don’t know yet what it will be. Odds are that there will be further reductions in expenses (i.e. there are a lot of auxiliary staff not working as of this week, and we will be hiring fewer contractors in the coming months as work priorities change) and significant reductions in revenues (Casino, recreation fees, parking fees, etc.).

As a major part of financial projections like this are projecting past trends into the future, the disruption we are seeing now throws that for a loop. The only thing we know for sure right now is that that things will be different than we guessed, and this Financial Plan will no doubt be updated as that certainty arrives. Until then, we need a 5-year Financial Plan to hang the Bylaw on, and this is the best one we have at the time.

As proposed (and this has yet to me formally adopted by Bylaw), the tax increase for 2020 will be 3.1%. That means the average Strata apartment household will pay $33 more in 2020 than in 2019, and the average single family house $74 more. We are also shifting focus to move the 1% Climate Action Levy over to an Emergency Fund to address unanticipated costs related to the pandemic response. That is an extra $14 (apartment) or $29 (Single Family house).

Projected utility increases for water, sewer, and solid waste are not going to change from what was announced earlier. These utility funds cover their own costs purely through rates, don’t earn any profit or dividend for the City, and the balance of their costs (utility rates from Metro Vancouver) are not changing, so that part of the financial plan will stay the same for now. The electrical rate increase has been pared back to reflect the situation at BC Hydro, so out increases are in line with theirs.

These are the numbers that will go into the Bylaw language. If you have feedback to Council about it, drop us an e-mail.

The following items were Moved on Consent by Council:

Closing Open Council Meetings to the Public
These council meetings have been held on-line, but there has always been a staff member present in the Council Chambers taking part in the call, transmitting it to the chambers, and the chambers has always been open to the public – because that is the law. This means we have to have staff overseeing access to the chambers and present during the meeting, and it may be little surprise that no-one has attended.

Under the Emergency Powers the province has giving the City the ability to hold open meetings without the public present, and we are exercising this. Meetings will still be available online, and streamed on the City’s video archive. Agendas will be available on-line and at City Hall.

This effectively means the “public delegations” part of council meetings will be suspended for a while. This does NOT mean that we will hold Public Hearings without public input. We are required for some Bylaws to have these hearings, and staff is working on the technology and processes required to allow public input that meets the requirements of the Community Charter. More will come on this in future meetings.

The following item was Removed from Consent for discussion:

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the 7 Task Forces
This is our regular report on the 7 working groups addressing the priority response areas for the City. If your question is “what is the City doing?”, this is where the answer is. Again, I don’t want to go through line by line, it is worth reading to see how multi-faceted the response is, and if you want to hear the discussion around these items, please listen to the recording.

I do, however, want to call attention to several businesses and organizations that are working with the City and together to help people who need help at this time. The Food Bank and Farmers Market have been working together to get people food at Tipperary Park every Thursday. The Sukh Sager Gurdwara in Queensborough has continued its long tradition of providing free meals to the most needy, and both Greens & Beans and Truffles Catering have been contributing meals to seniors and others in need at this time. It is heartwarming to live in a community that cares with its actions, not just its words. Thank you.

Resolution to Support Transit
Finally, the following resolution was passed unanimously by Council in support of a call from the Canadian Urban Transit Association:

That New Westminster City Council endorse CUTA’s request to the Government of Canada for emergency funding to provide immediate liquidity to transit operators and on-going funding to alleviate revenue loss as ridership rebuilds;

I have already probably said enough about this, but if you feel like you want to add your voice, I would encourage you to check out the efforts of the SaveTransit coalition and Abundant Transit BC. You can follow those links to ways to can amplify their voices and help keep transit solvent.

3 comments on “Council April 20, 2020

  1. Hi Pat, has the City discussed creating separate mill rates for multi-unit vs. single-family homes (as discussed in articles such as below)? Perhaps this could help off-set some of our lost revenues, though I imagine you are looking for more immediate remedies. It seems to me that a neighbourhood of SFH pays disproportionately lower taxes compared to a high-rise which may house the same amount of people, but requires far less sidewalk and road space, shorter utility routes, etc.

    1. Yes and no. By that I mean the idea has been discussed, but we are not legally able to do it, and are not sure the outcome is what you might want to see.

      Under current provincial legislation, we can only have one category of residential land for taxation. All residential properties pay the same rate, and we cannot change that. There have been a few resolutions by the UBCM to ask the province to change this, to allow a Single Family detached rate and a multi-family rate, or a different rate for Strata or rental. Many ideas have been floated. I’ll skip over the various complications of making this work (there are significant devils in details), but although most have the idea you express – SFD should may more, rental and/or strata should pay less, there is a fear that the opposite would happen – that these tax levers would be used to limit or disincent multi-family development during a housing crisis. So best to say it is an ongoing discussion.

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