Council – June 10, 2019

We had a public-delegation-full Council Meeting on Monday, I never realized how much people in New West hate basketball (I’m going to look back at this blog post in a few years and have no idea what that joke is about). To see it all, you need to watch the video, because I only report here on what we get done, and we had an agenda to get through:

Uptown Belmont Street Parklet: Proposed Redesign
The Uptown Parklet has been successful, if you measure success by its intended purpose: making a public place where people can meet, rest, socialize, and share. As a public square owned by the public, it works, better than any other parklet in the City (and yes, there are others, in Sapperton, in the Brow). We are not quite Montreal, but animating public space is a goal this council supports.

Part of the problem with this success is that some people are bothered by other people using the space. There has also been a bit of a shift in the use of the space as the original astroturf got shabby and was removed, and there were some maintenance issues with the equipment in the space. This report outlines a plan to “refresh” the space to address the second problem, and a bit of a strategy to address the first problem.

Some residents of the adjacent residential buildings are bothered by nighttime use of the parklet, especially people leaving the local pub or drinking in the parklet at night, which has lead to a lot of noise complaints. Smoking is also (as in all of our parks) a problem. In short, some neighbours want the Parklet removed. These are both community behaviour problems that occur in all of our parks and public areas, and re-locating them is not a solution. Every time I go to the Parklet and talk to people using it, they tell me how much they appreciate it being there (though many say they want it fixed up). The drinking/smoking issues are best addressed through a combination of enforcement and education. We are working with the NWPD, the Uptown BIA and the neighbours to work on these issues, and Councillor Trentadue was right on the mark (IMHO) in saying we need to look at a little more “proactive” enforcement, and a little less relying on people to call the NWPD non-emergency line.


The following items were moved on consent:

Recruitment 2019: Committee Appointments (NTAC & Arts)
We are officially appointing a new representative to the NTAC from the new Victoria Hill Ginger Drive Residents’ Association, and a new representative to the Arts Commission.

800 Block Boyd Street: Road Paving – Request for Construction Noise Bylaw No. 6063, 1992 Exemption
They need to re-pave Boyd Street after gas line replacement. It will happen at night to reduce the traffic impact, and a construction noise bylaw exemption is required. Council approved this.

118 Regina Street: Development Variance Permit – Consideration of Notice of Opportunity to be Heard
A heritage house in Queens Park is seeing an upgrade to improve the livable space, while protecting the heritage value of the house. They require a variance for side setback (how close the side of the addition can be to the property line), to reduce it from 5 feet to 3.1 feet. This will go to an Opportunity to be Heard on June 24th; C’mon out and tell us what you think.

230 Keary Street (Building 8), 268 Nelson’s Court (Building 7), and 228 Nelson’s Crescent (Building 5): Brewery District – Zoning Bylaw Text Amendment to Convert Permitted Use on Building 8 from Commercial to Omnibus Use (including Residential)
Wesgroup would like to revisit the zoning language for the next phases of the Brewery District development. The want to make the currently-designated commercial density in Building 8 into “omnibus” zoning which allows a shift towards more residential and less commercial use, along with increasing the height of the building (but not the density – a narrower, taller building), in exchange for making all of buildings 5 and 7 into market rental properties. In short, 320 units currently approved for sale as condos would become secured market rental units in exchange for no increased density, but a shift from commercial to residential.

This is a preliminary report, and has some review to go through, including a conversation with the neighbourhood and eventually a Public Hearing if it gets through all the hoops. I’m a bit challenged by this developer one again going back to the neighbourhood to ask for more height, but I am willing to see how the public and committee reviews go here, and whether the addition of more market rental is valued.

UBCM Resolution in Support of Greater Investments in Municipal and Not-for-Profit Seniors Services and Supports
The UBCM meeting in the Fall will already have a couple of New Westminster resolutions, this one was brought to us by the Healthy Aging Municipal Caucus, of which the City is a member. We are asking, along with a few other municipalities, for the UBCM to coordinate a more coordinated approach between the three orders of governments and local not-for-profits to better fund initiatives to support seniors in our communities.

2018 Statement of Financial Information
Every year we produce a SOFI for the Provincial Government, along with a report from our Auditors telling them everything is on the up-and-up. We ended this fiscal year with $51M more in financial assets than Liabilities ($4M less than last year), but have $23M more in accumulated surplus (which includes the value of all of our buildings, sewer pipes, asphalt, light poles, desktop computers, etc. etc.). We exceeded our revenue targets by $5 Million (though we collected $1M less than anticipated in taxes), and spent $9M more than we expected. We have $128M in investments, and $59M in debt.

Also on there is the remuneration info – I got paid $46,434 for Council work in fiscal year 2018, and spent $5,719 on various expenses (mostly conference attendance at FCM, UBCM, and Lower Mainland LGA). You can also see a list with the names (ugh) of every employee who got paid more than $75,000 in wages and expenses last year, and the name of every supplier from whom we purchased more than $25,000 in goods. Compelling stuff!


The following items were Removed form Consent for discussion:

Funding for Tsilhqot’in Nation reconciliation
The City has a budget line for “international relations”, which has in the past supported several international-exchange initiatives with our City Cities in China, Japan, and the Philippines. Those types of junkets are becoming less common (I have never travelled overseas on behalf of the City in my 4+ years on Council, and there hasn’t been a full council exchange in many years). We are, however, entering a new kind of City-to-Nation relationship with First Nations communities across the province. The special relationship of New Westminster and the Tsilhqot’in Nation, based on a tragic history, has been a priority for Council, and has resulted in some great relationship building leading to a positive path towards reconciliation with this Nation.

The next step in this relationship is for our two communities to come together and have a commemoration ceremony with representatives of the Tsilhqot’in, and more visits by a Councillor or two to their Nation to talk about future activities. We are, in this report, approving taking some of the International Relations budget money to pay for this, and establishing that future expenses should come from a reconciliation budget.

2019 Council Remuneration
We once again sent the touchy issue of Council Remuneration to an outside consultant for review, as we agreed to do last time this came up 4 years ago. The consultant recommended that Council pay be increased by 15% to make up for the change in federal taxation regime, which removed the tax exemption from half of our pay, essentially reducing our take-home by 15% 9or “making us whole” so we have essentially the same take-home in 2019 as we did in 2018, then continue annual CPI increases. This would make our pay once again fit close to the median of our comparator communities.

They also recommended that we increase a vehicle allowance to match that of our neighbouring communities. This I disagree with. I simply don’t think we need a vehicle allowance in a City of 15 square kilometres with excellent transit service and walkability, and if we do have legitimate travel costs for our day-to-day work, it should be managed though our expense allowance, not as something we are given outright.

Regardless, Council moved to table the report, and we will have a fuller discussion of it next meeting, no doubt after careful consideration of Facebook comments.

Arts Commission: Request to Increase Arts & Culture Grant
We are going through a process of revamping our grant process, including some review of how grants are categorized. As we are also launching a new Arts Strategy, the Arts Commission is asking that the amount of money awarded to support arts in the community, and way it is awarded, be reviewed as part of this review. There is no specific ask for a specific amount here, but we will be getting a report back from staff.


We moved the following Bylaw,:

Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 8123, 2019 for Residential Rental Tenure
This Bylaw that updates the Rental Tenure zoning for 6 properties that have always operated a rental in the city was adopted by Council.


We also had one piece of New business:

Motion: Gender, Diversity and Inclusion
Councillor Trentadue put forward the following motion:

That staff report back on the current breakdown of departments by gender, diversity, and people with disabilities, and
That staff report back on best practices that other governments, institutions and businesses have implemented to address gender parity, diversity and inclusion; and
That staff develop hiring practices that will meet the needs of a changing workforce and improve the balance of our employee make up; and
That staff develop metrics and a reporting structure that will confirm our success
or failure to address these issues; and
That staff develop City-wide policy to which all departments can adhere and that addresses not only the issues of gender parity, diversity, and inclusion but also the integration and support of all city employees with disabilities.

The City has always had the feeling that we are doing a good job at diversity in our workforce, but there are areas (such as in the trades) where we are definitely not keeping up with the diversity of the general workforce. This motion will ask staff to actually start tracking the diversity of our workforce, and report back with practices and metrics so we can assure that barriers to employment for underrepresented groups can be identified and addressed. This is going to make us a better operation, and Council unanimously supported it.

And that was the end of the meeting, but don’t forget to tune in or drop by on June 24th when we have (count ‘em) 12 Public Hearings and 3 Opportunities to be heard. Should be an action-packed event!

FCM 2019

The 2019 annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) was held in Quebec City at the end of May. I attended along with one other Councillor from New West and more than 2000 other delegates from across Canada. Here is a short version of what I saw during an action-packed three days.

Sessions:
The meat of any professional conference is the workshop sessions, where we can learn about the best practices, new ideas, and challenges of other municipalities across the country. I attended sessions all three days, including ones on the challenges and opportunities coming out of the upcoming federal election (read: funding!), the FCM National Funding Program update, 5G implementation, building diversity on our Councils, Smart City applications, and addressing affordable housing.

There was a lot there, but the last session was perhaps the most compelling, with a researcher from McGill talking about Short Term Rentals, their impact on Le Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal, and the challenges that City has run into in attempts to regulate it while their rental vacancy dips below 1%. It was compelling, and somewhat challenging…

One of these maps shows the AirBnB Listings in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal. the other is the *legally registered* AirBnB listings in that neighbourhood. I’ll let you figure out which is which.

Business:
These conferences also feature an AGM, where a few organizational Bylaw changes were discussed. Getting bylaw changes and annual financial reporting though with a delegation of more than 1500 people in the room was handled deftly by the table executive, using remote voting devices.

These devices were also used for voting on Resolutions. Compared to the UBCM or Lower Mainland LGA, there were very few resolutions, and most of them were aspirational asks more than specific requests for regulatory changes (cities are “creatures of the provinces”, so our regulatory interface with the federal government is slightly filtered). However, with minor amendments, all 9 resolutions were passed by the Membership.

Politics:
We had speeches from the leaders of 4 Federal Parties, all trying to sell their vision for how the Federal Government and local governments can work together – and why their success in the upcoming election is paramount to that. In the order they appeared:

The Prime Minister, unless I missed it, never referenced the leader of the Conservative Party, but at least twice directly referenced the suddenly-not-popular Doug Ford. Hard to tell if he was just trying this out because of recent news, or if this is the strategy, but the short message is: If you vote for the Conservatives, Scheer will do what Doug Ford is doing, and will cut funds to local governments for the services you need. Other than that, he attaches himself to popular mayors in the audience, promises to work closely with Cities, and not let pesky provinces get in the way (which is probably another shot at Kenney and Ford, but seems a challenge to our model of Federalism).

Scheer’s speech was a long exercise in coded words and dogwhistles, but in the end I guess they all are. He fears infrastructure funding will lead to deficits (strange thing to say to 2,000 municipal leaders looking for handouts), never mentions climate (though he does care deeply about the environment), but he hates the Carbon Tax because it “punishes innocent families”. His approach to housing is to let the market do its thing with less red tape (ugh, the market is what got us here!), and his solution to the opioid crisis is to somehow “hold China accountable..” I might say the entire thing was ugly, ignorant, and offensive, but I may betray my bias.

Jagmeet Singh was the first leader to open with a land acknowledgement, and the first to speak without a teleprompter. He had notes, but riffed off of them freely. His speech was good if unpolished. He promised a lot (pharmacare, broadband, infrastructure funding, removing barriers to post-secondary education), but to me the most telling part was that he was the only leader to link climate action to inequality and the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels. That was the message I wanted to hear (and increasingly, that is the message among people looking for climate action in Canada), and he delivered it clearly without equivocation.

Elizabeth May was the last speaker, she also opened with a land acknowledgement, and spoke without notes at all, best I could tell. Though the eldest leader, she spoke more than others about the need to listen to the youth and the duty we have to them (a very different message than the Trudeau and Scheer platitudes about “supporting families”). She spoke passionately about the Climate Emergency, and drew allusions to Dunkirk and Churchill. Though her speech lacked the substance of the other leaders, she was easily the most inspiring of the speakers.

If you want to watch the speeches yourself, you can scroll down the FCM Facebook page, where they were live streamed and are still available.

Overall:
FCM is a funny bird. It is much larger than our regional and provincial associations, and much like the Federal government, it at times seems disconnected from the day-to day. Though the message is reinforced all along that the Feds care about local government, and how local government is the order of government that has the most connection to people’s every day life, the FCM runs the risk of being too far from our everyday as to sometimes challenge me to think about local applications.

Jagmeet Singh made the comment during his Q&A that his father used to say “If the Federal government stopped working today, no-one would notice for a month, The provincial government might be missed after a week or two, but if the local government went way, you would notice almost immediately.” Water, sewer, roads, waste, parks, these things we interact with so ubiquitously that we take them for granted, and because in Canada we tend to deliver them really well, we take the system that delivers them for granted.

Part of the peculiarity of FCM is that it is a strangely rural conference. Canada has never been as urban as it is now: our biggest cities are growing fast, and our small towns are (with some notable exceptions) stagnant or hollowing out. Yet the 2,000+ delegates at FCM overwhelmingly represent smaller towns and rural areas. There are more members from Saskatchewan than from any other province, and the three Prairie Provinces have more members than Quebec and Ontario combined:Breakdown of the number of UBCM members by province, which clearly does not correlate with population.

Therefore the issues of rural areas (e.g. unmet demand for Broadband service) dominate the conversation over the issues of urban areas (e.g. unmet demand for public transit). There is a “Big Cities Mayors Caucus”, and I’m sure Naheed Nenshi gets more access to Trudeau than the Mayor of Podunk, Saskatchewan, but at the delegate level, the imbalance is palpable.

This was perhaps made more distinct by the phenomenon of organized (and no-doubt industry-sponsored) campaigns to get the “Support Fossil Fuels” message across getting larger every year. A booth handed out literally thousands of “Support Canada’s Energy” t-shirts, which was no doubt a challenge to the continued efforts at FCM to get the federal government to help local governments shoulder our disproportionate burden for greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation. We may have been at a bilingual conference in Quebec City, but Canada’s Two Solitudes are divided on different lines today than they once were:

So perhaps the most inspiring meeting of this year was an impromptu meeting organized by Rik Logtenberg, a new Councillor for Nelson BC to start a “Climate Caucus”. A group to coordinate local government calls for support in addressing the Climate Crisis. It was not part of the regular program, but was spread by word-of-mouth, and we had a packed room (standing room only!) representing a diversity of Canada. No free industry-supplied t-shirts, just people getting together to talk about shifting our thinking and supporting each other in the tough work ahead:

In the end, that is the best part of taking an opportunity like FCM – the power of networking formally and informally with elected officials across the nation that are trying and doing and sometimes failing the same way you are, so we can learn together. Scheming over beers has always been a powerful force for change.

Taxes 2019

If you own a home in New West, you should have received your annual tax bill in the mail in recent weeks. If your assessment went up by the city-wide average of 9.03%, then your tax bill went up over last year by 5.28%. If your assessment went up by more than 9.03%, then your tax bill went up more. Conversely, if your assessment went up by less than 3.7%, or if it went down, then your tax bill this year is lower than it was last year. I tried to show how this works in this blog post from a couple of years ago (with the numbers from a couple of years ago, mind you).

It seems an appropriate time for me to update some of my older posts comparing New West tax rates to others around the region. I’ve done this a few times in a few different ways for several years on this blog (here, here, and here, for example), and no matter what type of analysis you do, it is clear that some local pundits continue to perpetuate terminological inexactitudes when they claim that New Westminster has the highest taxes in BC, or Canada.

Recognizing my own suspicion of bias, all of the data below comes from the BC Government reports that annually compare tax rates and burdens across all local governments, and have been doing so for a while. Of course, this data is from 2018 (Cities are only now submitting 2019 budget numbers to them), but this is the best source to compare numbers across the province. You can read them all here and make your own comparisons if you don’t like my ham-fisted Excel skills.

I am going to reiterate a point I have made before: there are many ways to compare taxes between jurisdictions. Vancouver and Surrey collect more tax overall than New West, because they are much larger. West Vancouver has lower mil rates because their average house price is much higher, Creston has a much higher mil rate because its average house value is much lower. Even the use of “typical house value” to compare taxes is biased, because some cities like New West have more people living in rental and condo buildings than some others, so a “typical house” is much larger and more expensive than the median or average household occupies. So to answer the primary question: do New Westminsterites pay more municipal taxes than residents of other municipalities, I think the fairest comparison is taxes collected per capita:

Source: BC Government statistics, Schedule 703_2018

Of the 161 Municipalities in BC, ranked from highest taxes to lowest, New Westminster (orange bar above) is ranked #71, between Parksville (#70) and Saanich (#72). In 2018 we collected $77.7 Million in taxes from just under 74,000 people, making our per capita tax rate $1,051. Province-wide, $4.76 Billion in municipal taxes was collected from 4.3 Million people, making the province-wide average about $1,150 (red dashed line above). So New Westminster residents paid $100 less per year, almost 10% less, than the average resident of BC. Our tax increase in 2019 will eat into this gap, pushing us up by about $50, but at the same time, almost every other Municipality in the province increased their taxes at a rate between 2 and 7%, so our position will not shift substantially.

Naturally, there are massive differences across the province on the proportion of taxes paid by industry and businesses, and the level of services provided by the Municipality. The Lower Mainland is a bit different than the rest of the province in the level of services we supply and the cost of delivering those services, so it may be fairer to only compare New West to our Metro Vancouver cohort:

Source: BC Government statistics, Schedule 703_2018

New Westminster ranks 13th out of 21 GVRD municipalities in taxes collected per capita. The GVRD Municipalities collect about $2.6 Billion in Municipal taxes from 2.56 Million people, for an average of $1019 per person (the red dashed line). New Westminster collects slightly more (3% more) than this average. This has changed over the last couple of years for two main reasons: New Westminster’s Capital Levy we are using to fund our aggressive capital renewal plan (lead by the replacement of the Canada Games Pool) and the regional trend where there is a much higher rate of population growth in the relatively low-tax municipalities of Surrey and Maple Ridge compared to slower growth in Vancouver and (especially) the North Shore. We can talk about correlation/causation here, because it might not be what you think…