Council – April 6 2020

Yes, we had a Council Meeting last Monday, and it has taken me too much time to put this report out. For all of the details, you are best to look at the agenda and listen to the recording here. The sound recording is not great (it starts spotty, but gets better). Here is my version of that we talked about, as much as I can trust my notes and memory at this time:

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the 7 Working Groups
This is a reporting out of the work being done by the 7 working groups formed as the City’s response to the ongoing crisis. I don’t want to transcribe them here, but you can open the report and look if you are keen to know about the breadth of the City’s response. There is a lot going on, and the ground is constantly shifting. We discussed some of the efforts, but at this point, I mostly want folks to recognize the work that City Staff and partners in several non-profit service agencies are doing to help people at these uncertain times.

Use of Previously-Awarded Grants and Criteria for Spring Grants 2020
The City grant program has been somewhat disheveled by the pandemic crisis. Some organizations that received grants will not able to do things we awarded grants for, like summer concerts or festivals, including some multi-year events.

Staff have reviewed the situation, and have made some recommendations. First, they do not want an organization that is not able to to activate a program in 2020 to count against an organization being able to try again in 2021. Some programs may be able to be deferred until the Fall when hopefully we will be past this situation, and the grant process will already allow this, and we are introducing some flexibility there.

We had a bit of discussion about organizations that may be able to shift from a planned activity or event to one that serves the community during this time, for example, creating an on-line event as opposed to a crowd-gathering event. For the most part, staff want to o encourage this, and allow organizations the flexibility to use their grant funding to build community at this difficult time.

The re-purposing of grants already awarded is a delicate balance. The City has some very difficult budget decisions coming up, but we don’t want to make it onerous for applicant who have already gone through an approval process to adapt their program if they have a great idea. So, how to streamline, but still recognize that we can’t be throwing money around right now without some oversight?

We will be asking revisions of already-approved grants to be brought to Council after they have been reviewed and approved by staff. This reflects the big change we have made in the grants process this year to remove the vague politics of Council making direct approvals, and replacing that with Council providing policy guidance to staff who recommend approval based on that policy guidance. After a robust discussion, we agreed to let staff review and recommend, but that the final approval needs to come to Council again, with direction to staff to make the process as streamlined as possible and not onerous for applicants.

On-Street Parking Management During COVID-19 Pandemic
No crisis is so severe that debating where people can and should store their cars isn’t a constant refrain. Of course, a great number of businesses are closed, and there are fewer people out on the streets, but still, parking is still a problem. The Hospital has, essentially, no visitors at this time, and all parking has been made free to help staff get to and from work in this important time when hours are uncertain, everyone is under strain, and transit is seen as undesirable due to physical distancing requirements. Of course, some car users who are NOT hospital employees are going to take advantage of this, but what are you going to do? We are always talking about parking because free car storage is the one thing we are all jerks about.

These has been some suggestion that Cities should not charge for car storage on City streets at this time. But I simply cannot find a reason why we would be encouraging people to put their private automobile on public space for extended periods of time for free, especially as all of our other revenue is going away. Hospital employees have a free parking place (hopefully it will be usefully enforced and people taking advantage of this will be fined, towed, and/or publicly shamed). Our neighbourhoods have a complex multi-tiered system of parking permits, time restriction, locals-only areas, and pay spots, all put in at some time because they addressed some problem around car storage space allocation at the time, and I see no compelling reason to disrupt this right now.

If anything, we should be closing some parking areas and opening up more space for people to walk, roll, and cycle so that people can get outside and exercise while maintaining physical distancing and while there are so fewer cars on the road…

The report from staff recommends no changes in pay parking at this time, and I agree.

The following items were Moved on Consent:

Queensborough Modular Housing: Request for Construction Noise Exemption
Council is providing a Construction Noise Exemption for work on the temporary Modular Housing project in Queensborough. We generally do not permit construction noise on Sundays, but the project is being challenged on timeline and is going to be providing a valuable community service. The work on Sundays will be indoor work (plumbing, drywalling, cabinetry, painting, etc.) and will not be loud outdoor machinery, so not the kind of construction noise that keeps a neighbourhood awake.

2020 Spring Freshet and Snow Pack Level
Every spring we get these updates on snowpack across the Fraser River basin and ENSO predictions to determine the risk of flooding come freshet season. Right now the snowpack is above normal, especially for the upper Fraser, and the forecast is for cooler weather in April – these are both bad things if avoiding a flood is your goal. Nothing to panic about yet, but flood risk is higher than average this year, and the City is taking some early precautions in April (dike inspections and updating supplier contacts in case we need to procure sandbags and such).

Temporary Borrowing for 2020
As I’ve commented before, cities are in for a financial shock as this pandemic response drags on. Required to run balanced budgets, and with limited non-restricted reserve funds, we simply don’t have the liquidity to take a significant hit to our revenue and still provide the services you need every day, from keeping the water flowing and trash disappearing to important protective services like fire and police. Almost every revenue source outside of property taxes is taking a serious hit. Casino revenues, recreation fees, filming revenues, and such have gone to zero. At the same time, things like permitting fees and parking revenues are going down.

As this is likely to run into a short-term cash crunch, we can draw on a line of credit. We prepare for this every year around this time with a pre-approval to borrow up to $3M as the month before we get our big tax revenue input is when we are close to having no cash on hand, by design, and need to assure we can make payroll. We hardly ever use this actual authority, but it is better to have and not use than to need and not have.

But this year in not normal, so staff are asking Council to approve a one-time borrowing of up to $12M from the Municipal Finance Authority to assure we stay solvent if the cash crunch goes on longer and is deeper than usual. Again, nothing says we have to use this borrowing, but it is there to make sure our bases are covered.

At the same time, staff are preparing a medium-term cash flow model with a few different scenarios to determine where and if we need these funds. More to come on that in future meetings. A lot more, I expect, as we are being inundated with requests to provide everything from property tax deferrals to utility credits, and every one of these ideas needs to be tested against the ability of the City to remain solvent. To be honest, this is the topic that is causing me the most sleepless nights right now.

We gave the required Revenue Anticipation Borrowing Bylaw No. 8192 three readings and adopted it. Let’s hope we don’t need to use too much of this.

We then had a couple of items of New Business added late to the Agenda:

Parks Operations
There are a few issues in parks operations that need to be adjusted. Tennis courts and lacrosse boxes need to close, as people are not respecting physical distancing, and as surrounding communities close their courts, ours are attracting crowds. So we have to officially close them to give Bylaws and Parks staff a lever to enforce their use.

Staff is going to put a little work into figuring out if there are ways to better support dog owners, and at the same time step up enforcement of dogs off leash in parks in general as off-leash areas needed to be closed because of issues with social distancing. There is more work to do here, and no quick answers yet.

Finally, there have been some concerns raised around trails and park use in general. New West is an urban area, and many of our parks are compact, making social distancing is a challenge when we want people to have the access to open spaces and sun at least enough to maintain some sanity. We promote awareness, try to educate and use soft enforcement, but for some “tighter” areas like the waterfront trails, we are going to be stepping up and perhaps making some areas one-way to give everyone more room. Watch for signage when you are out for a walk, and try to pay attention to your personal space (plus 6 feet!)

Pedestrian spaces
On a similar vein, we need to support physical distancing in the rest of our public spaces. As commuting traffic has been remarkably reduced, there are still a lot of people trying to get outside to walk, roll, cycle, or otherwise get exercise and fresh air while maintaining distancing. This is creating challenges for people when sidewalks in the city are generally 4 or 5 feet wide, and when navigating our pedestrian realm is already somewhat constrained for space compared to the abundance of road space.

There are a few identified areas where space is very constrained, like the McInnes overpass and some greenway connections that engineering are prioritizing. We had a bit of discussion around this, and there are many examples from other cities across the region and North America where road space is being re-allocated. We have asked staff to find opportunities to immediately and temporarily re-allocate road space from car use and (especially) car storage to give pedestrians more room to circulate safely, especially in constrained high-pedestrian traffic areas like Carnarvon Street or the Central Valley Greenway connection on North Road. This is more complicated that you might think, as intersection treatments need to be considered to keep things safe, because drivers generally need strong controls to keep from driving over people on foot. But it van be done, and Council asked staff to get to work on it.

Staff is also working on adjusting crossing signals to reduce the reliance on pedestrian activation buttons and increasing crossing time allocation for pedestrians, in light of the shift in road use that is happening right now.

This was Monday, which in the current scale of things is about a year ago. Several things have changed since Monday, including New Westminster Electric rolling out it’s pandemic response program that essentially matches the program offered by BC Hydro, and of course, continued calls from local governments for support for the Provincial and Federal governments. Local governments are still the “front line” for emergency response, and we still only collect less than 10% of the taxes paid by Canadians. We are doing a lot with little right now, and that is thanks to the hard work and dedication of the staff at the City. Some are still going into City Hall, some are still doing park maintenance, and doing all the tasks that keep your electricity flowing, your water clean and safe, and your sewage going away. Many are working from home managing the City’s finances, helping with relief measures, and addressing concerns that are arriving every day by phone and e-mail. They are all dealing with the same family and community stresses you are feeling. We are all in this together, and we are getting through it together.

Now it is a “long weekend”. I hope you get to connect with people that are important to you, get a bit of sun, and more importantly, stay safe and help our community get through this as quickly as possible.

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