Strange days continue.
Like many people, I am stuck in this strange, soul-defeating cycle of trying to avoid Social Media and the radio news broadcasts, but feeling compelled to always be checking in lest I miss something important, combined with a need to feel connected with my neighbours and friends. I am not someone who typically suffers with anxiety, but am starting to recognize signs of anxiety in my behavior. I can’t concentrate on work or other tasks that take more than 5 minutes, like writing a blog post.
We all need to step back in our boredom and find the separation from the hourly updates. Find space to do the things that let you escape. I’m going for a bike ride right after I finish this, or maybe ill dig in the Garden. Find your escape.
Of course, I am working in my “regular job” as best I can with the virtual desktop, and trying to keep up with events in New West. There are updates here, if you feel that compelling need to check in. We have made a Declaration of Local Emergency, which may free up some resources and gives our Emergency management structures some delegated authority that we hope they won’t have to exercise. Staff are constantly in touch with the Health Authority and senior governments to make sure recommended procedures and protocols are followed. Council will have a meeting on Monday afternoon to help make any policy decisions that need to be made, and to allocate any resources that need to be allocated.
I think it is important for folks to recognize we are all on new ground here. The City has a Pandemic Response Plan developed after the SARS crisis, but it has never been activated before, and staff have to learn its operational parts, and determine what is applicable to the current situation and what is not. There are subject matter experts at the Fraser Health Authority and the Centre for Disease Control whose advice we can lean on, and we share resources and knowledge with our cohort communities, but no-one on the City’s staff (or the staff of any City) are experts at this, and therefore everyone is exercising caution.
What makes a “crisis” different than regular times is the will to act. Local governments, for a variety of reasons, are often reluctant or slow to act for fear of unknown or possible negative consequences – Cities are risk-adverse by regulation and by culture. A crisis is a time when that needs to shift to a fear of not acting, and we will tolerate some unforeseen risk, be it financial or doing something wrong, because that risk is smaller and more ephemeral than the real current risk we can see around us. None of this changes the limits of how a City can act within its delegated authority.
This crisis is also a strange, long-lasting one, with implications up and down our economy that are still unknown. This is one of those times where the stark differences between a business and a government are relevant. Although there are some services we can (or have to) shut down, like fitness programming or the Library, there are many we simply cannot. The City needs police and fire protection. Building inspections and permitting need to operate to keep the community safe. Water needs to keep flowing and be tested, sewer garbage collection systems need to keep working. As pool, recreation programs, and community centres wind down, the City needs to address the needs of its employees, especially as program cancellations stretch into months.
There is another aspect of how Cities work that most don’t think of, and that is our general lack of liquidity. Because of the strict regulations around our financing, we do not generally have a lot of unrestricted cash lying around. Most of our Reserves are earmarked for specific purposes by law, and we cannot move that money round at will. We are required every year to run balanced budgets, and our ability to borrow money on the fly is limited. Do the math on our annual financial plan, and you can see that New West runs through about $16M a month, and half of our income arrives when property tax bills are paid – this time of the year we are at the lowest level of our cash reserves. We do not (to my understanding) have the legal authority to defer property tax payments, and if we did, it would not be long before we ran out of cash.
Of course, every homeowner in BC who is over the age of 55 or has a child under the age of 18 can receive a deferral for their property taxes from the BC Government for a remarkably low interest rate. If you qualify and are feeling financial stress this year at tax time, I recommend you take advantage of this offer. This does not address the issue with small business taxes, and I am not sure (we have not discussed at Council yet) what legal options we have available to us to assist there. I am hopeful that the senior levels of government that do enjoy significantly more budget liquidity than local governments will step in to help here, as I would love to see the millions who work in small businesses in communities across the country get prioritized over airlines and oil companies.
That said, we do have options and more flexibility in our utilities accounts, so there may be some options here to allow some deferrals. We are already following the lead of BC Hydro and doing this with electrical bills, but have (again) not discussed the rest of utilities at Council yet, but I suspect we will on Monday.
I have talked informally with some of my Council colleagues and the Mayor about the situation. With limited and mixed information and no formal meetings, we of course have not made any decisions. However, I can tell you everyone has expressed unprecedented concern, and are worried about what we can do. We know many of the more vulnerable members of our community simply don’t have the resilience or support network to feel secure right now. We know a lot of small businesses are closing, and many are worried about when, or even if, they will be able to reopen. We know people are worried and anxious. So are we. But our community is strong, we have shown great spirit in supporting each other in the past. Every one of us lives and shops and plays and shares in this community, we are all committed to doing what we can to support the community we love.
So all that to say, there are better sources for info than my blog, and you should go there if you need info. City-wise, go to the City’s website for local updates. The Provincial Government website will have updates, and will the Centre for Disease Control. Don’t panic, be informed, but watch your sources, because there is a lot of bad info on Social Media right now.
We will be holding a Council Meeting on Monday, when I will be expecting some updates from staff and a challenging conversation about what this means to our 2020 budget process. There will not be public delegations at the meeting, so though it will be a public meeting with limited public seating (to respect Social Distancing protocols), we are highly recommending people stay home and watch the live stream.
Other than that, take care of each other folks, and think about how you can help others while keeping yourself safe. There are people in our community who cannot stay at home, who don’t have access to supports they may need, for whom this disruption is life-threatening. Every one of us on our own journey through this, so be kind.