Council – Nov 30 2020

We had Council on November 30th, and I have to say we are really getting used to this zoom meeting thing. Hardly an “uh…you are on mute” at all. We had a pretty lengthy agenda, starting with a waived Public Hearing:

Business License Amendment Bylaw (Amusement Centre) No. 8229, 2020
The owner of the Arcade in Sapperton has been trying to shift to a business model that the City has not allowed before, and one the Province’s liquor laws have tried to prevent. From the City side, that has to do with 1990s (public nuisance? moral panic?) issues about arcades that got baked into our zoning and business bylaws. This includes it not being in a Mall (where, I guess Paul Bart was going to prevent the youts causing trouble?), it being a larger footprint than currently allowed, not having controls on content (in the 1990s, most pornography was distributed by stores in similar business districts as arcades), and hours of operation (late night Arcades kept the youts from their assigned homework tasks). On the liquor side, it is generally not ok to have liquor, youth, and amusements in the same place. Any of the two, but not all three. Add to this a desire to have kids in a place where you can sell beer past midnight, and the Liquor Branch doesn’t know what to do.

So after a couple of years operating without a Liquor License on a Temporary Use Permit, all of the ducks have been lined up, and Amendment Bylaws have been drafted for our Zoning Bylaw, Permit Fees Bylaw, and Business License Bylaw. This would normally require an Opportunity to be Heard, but due to the length of the application process, the extensive public consultation the owner has gone through and the predominantly positive feedback from those consultations, Council has agreed to waive the need for this Council appearance. We moved to approve the Bylaw amendment.

Engineering and Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw Report
We discussed Utility Rates in a Workshop a couple of weeks ago and I wrote about it here. This is the Bylaw that sets the rate changes for 2021. I look forward to discussions in the 2021 about the sustainability of our reserves and our current reserve-replenishing strategy, but in the short term full agree with the need to assure financial solvency of these utilities and that these rate increases are important to meet that goal.

For a “typical” single family house, this means $42 more a year for water, $60 more for sewer service and $30 more for solid waste, a total of about $11 a month more for your City utilities. Add to this about $42 more a year or $3.50 a month for electricity (based on typical household use).

Having already approved utility rate changes in principle, the debate before us here was whether to continue waiving the 1% Climate Action Levy increase as we did in response to the uncertainty of the COVID situation early last year. This, in effect, reduced everyone’s electricity rates by 1%, or about $15/year on average. There is a bit of history here, but the Climate Levy was introduced to offset the removal of the “Rate Rider” from our rates to match a similar move by BC Hydro in 2019. The idea behind the levy was to create a stable fund source to support various energy and emissions reduction projects in the community – the work we need to do to get to our stated Climate Action goals.

I very much support this fund, and think it is prudent for the City to go back to funding the levy as originally intended. There will always be a reason to wait one more year before we take these kinds of actions. There always has been a reason to wait one more year, and that’s how we got to where we are today where a problem we have known about for decades is a sudden emergency. The levy was a good idea before COVID, it is still a good idea, and it will pay for things that save the residents and businesses of New Westminster money in the long term. The cost of us not doing this is going to cost the average New Westminster electricity customer much more than the $15 this levy will cost.

It was a split vote, but I voted with the majority to move us back to the full levy in 2021.


The following items were Moved on Consent:

Budget 2021 Public Engagement Summary Report
The City led a Public Engagement exercise around budget issues, as we discussed in a recent Budget Workshop. Here we officially receive this into the Council record. Having more than 1,000 people engage in something like this is pretty good for New Westminster, but we do need to recognize this is not a scientific survey – people who choose to engage in this type of survey are by nature self-selecting. The cross-reference with demographic data is always interesting. Property owners were (as is typical) overrepresented compared to renters, youth were underrepresented, as were immigrants and visible minorities. Still, a good overview of how the voting base sees the City’s budget priorities.

Child Care Grant Update for 232 Lawrence Street and Next Steps
There is a piece of City land on 232 Lawrence Street that we were hoping to make available for a Childcare facility, as we have limited City land ownership in Queensborough, and it is the part of the City most lacking in childcare facilities. In applying for grants and doing some work assessing the land, we ran up against what is probably a typical reason why there is so little licensed childcare in Q’Boro: the difficulty of building an appropriate space with existing flood plain restrictions and geotechnical costs for that part of Lulu Island. Simply put, the cost per childcare spot is too high to meet Provincial criteria for support, mostly because the Province has shifted goalposts that make the Q’boro project no longer eligible.

I see where the Province is coming from, why spend $70,000 per space when others can be built for $40,000 per spot. But this builds in regional inequity – people in Q’Boro are just as deserving of local childcare (and have more dire need for it) as those who live on cheaper-to-develop lands on New Westminster’s mainland.

Meanwhile, staff are looking for other opportunities in Q’Boro. It seems that the owners of Queensborough Landing are not interested in leasing any of their many empty storefronts for this use, and there are limited other spaces available. We will continue to work with the School District as they have expansion plans for Queen Elizabeth School that may be able to accommodate Childcare expansion as well. Work to do.

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the Five Task Forces
This is our regular update from the internal Pandemic Response task forces in City Hall. Not much in here, actually, as things are pretty much on a new-business-as-usual status.

Grimston Park Amendment Bylaw No. 8219, 2020 – Results of Alternative Approval Process
Not surprisingly, the completely asinine “Alternative Approval Process” for disposal of a small part of City lands where MOTI has already built a piece of infrastructure had zero responses. What a waste of staff time and City resources, but at least the Record got some advertising revenue. So, supporting local media for the win, I guess. The land can now be transferred to the Province.

Acting Mayor Appointments for January to December 2021
We all take turns being Acting Mayor. That means during that month we do mayor things if the mayor is not around. That may mean chairing a meeting, or signing important paperwork, or cutting a ribbon. I sued to be March and August (I don’t have kids, so rarely take vacations in those months), but it looks like we are going to try two-month appointments for a change, so I will be February and March.

I note than every other Councillor gets 61 days as Acting Mayor, while Councillor Trentadue gets 62, and I only get 59. A travesty.

Reorganization of Task Forces and Appointment of Chairs and Council members to Task Forces and Advisory Committees
On direction from the Mayor, with agreement of Council, we are making some adjustments of Task Forces and Advisory Committees. There are small changes, but mostly a continuation of the existing work areas.

1135 Tanaka Court: Rezoning for Cannabis Infused Product Manufacturing Facility – Preliminary Report
The owners of this empty big-box commercial space in Queensborough would like to use it to manufacture food products infused with cannabis for the burgeoning market for this stuff. Aside from one of the ingredients of the foodstuffs being cannabis, the use is pretty much consistent with the current zoning, but a few changes are needed to comply with federal cannabis production regulations. This is a preliminary report, and it may go to Public Hearing, so I’ll hold further comments until then.

6 – 320 Stewardson Way (Pacific Breeze Winery): Application for Manufacturers Lounge
The little “garage winery” just off Stewardson Way wants to open a lounge area with 20 seats. They have been manufacturing on site for several years, and have offered tasters on site, but now want people to be able to enjoy their products like they do on nearby Steel & Oak Brewery. They are applying from the Province for an appropriate license, and require endorsement from the City. Done.

618 Carnarvon Street (Urban One Project): Request for Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption
A high-rise construction project downtown included in its plan the encapsulation of a stretch of the SkyTrain line just west of 6th Street. Construction of this requires installing forms so concrete can be poured, and for seemingly obvious reasons, some of this work cannot occur while the SkyTrain is running. This is a big job, and will take a couple of months. The builders will take some efforts to reduce the impact of this noise as much as possible, but there is no doubt it is going to cause some stress to some residential neighbors.

There are also going to be some disturbances of traffic on Clarkson Street, but Engineering are working with the builders to mitigate the impacts on neighbors.

Agnes Greenway Phase 1 Implementation & Engagement Update
The long-awaited Agnes Greenway is going to start rolling out this winter. It will arrive first with some temporary protection measures (the glue-down flexi-posts instead of concrete) to allow for a bit of a trial and active consult with the changes before we cast it in expensive concrete – which is better installed in the summer anyway. It is also going to involve some re-adjustment of traffic patterns on Agnes and Carnarvon, partly to simplify the conflict zones and make it safer for all users, partly to continue to protect the vast majority of street parking for residents. I think people angry about the changes will blame the bike lanes, not the free street parking. Such is the way with these things. That said, there is going to be a lot of attention paid to loading zones, accessibility, and transit system function through this trial, so don’t be afraid to give us some feedback. We want to get this right.

Revenue Anticipation Borrowing Amendment Bylaw No. 8243, 2020
This is our annual just-in-case borrowing bylaw. As the bulk of our revenue as a City arrives all at once at tax time, we maintain a cash flow with that in mind so we can make our monthly payroll. That said, we are usually pretty tight to break even, so it is possible that we would need to borrow for a short period of time (weeks) in the event an emergency happens at the worst possible time that draws us down. The best way to manage this is through a line-of-credit we can draw on if needed. Council need to give authorization for that line or credit each year. Here we are.

DCC Expenditure Bylaw No. 8244, 2020
The City collects Development Cost Charges to help pay for infrastructure improvements that are required because of increased density in the City. (I talked about DCCs in detail here). In order for us to spend from those DCC funds, we need to pass an expenditure Bylaw. This assures transparency and assures the people who paid DCCs that the money they gave us didn’t get spent on other stuff. In 2020, we spent $16,000 from DCCs on Queensborough drainage projects, $350,000 on Queensborough transportation projects, $250,000 on mainland transportation projects, $180,000 on Queensborough parks and $350,000 on mainland parks (those last two mostly in debt repayments for parks expansions already done).

New Normal Staff Committee: Mandatory Face Masks update and New Health Orders
This is just an update on the Public Health Orders around mandatory mask use in public buildings and businesses, and how it impacts our operations.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

2021 Proposed Capital Budget and Operating Budget – Additional Information
These are some reports to follow up on requests Council had from last week’s budget workshop. These were added in part On Table, so Council will use them to inform our Budget deliberations next week

Amendments to the Sign Bylaw: Amending Bylaw No. 8182, 2020 for Second and Third Reading
The big debate of the night was whether those big 4 x 4 foot election signs were really needed, and were more clutter and hassle than they were worth. There were some suggestions out of the 2018 civic election on how we can adjust the election rules and function for next time around. One of the suggestions from that was suggested improvements to our election sign bylaws. After some discussion, the idea of limiting election signs to the smaller 2×2-foot lawn signs and the banning of larger billboard-sized signs may help with some issues around visual clutter and equity.

We had two rounds of sending requests to comments to all recent local government candidates and provincial and federal riding associations, and they all seem to agree that limiting signs to 3.0 square metres (as the current bylaw is written) has never caused anyone any concerns, limiting them to the lawn-sign-standard of 2×2 feet “runs counter to the principles of free association and free expression enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” In retort, I would suggest all Sign Bylaws act as a legal limitation on free expression, and yet every City has a sign Bylaw. The Charter gives governments the right to limit expression in a reasonable way. The Province gives Local Governments the right to regulate signs in the City. I find the charter argument to be spurious. I would also argue that one would have to be *very selective* in their reading of the election sign laws in adjacent municipalities to assert that these changes “are considerably more restrictive than those in neighbouring municipalities”.

We had a pretty good debate, and Council was split about this, both arguing their side was the one that afforded most equity. I was on the side of thinking that the large signs, by their nature, require infrastructure and resources that are difficult for smaller independent candidates to muster, and they tip the balance towards larger more sophisticated campaigns (and, by nature, incumbents). I noted 100% of the feedback we got opposing the change was from established and well-funded political organizations, and all thought that restricting the size of signs represented an unfair harm to small independent candidates. Not a single independent candidate in any of the last few elections or a third-place or worse party replied to our inquiries, so take from that what you like.

Council voted in a split vote to no longer permit 4×4 signs and limit election signs to the standard 2x2foot lawn variety and to residential property (including rental properties).

Zoning Relaxations to Allow On-Site Patios to Support Business Recovery: Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 8246, 2020 – Bylaw for Two Readings
Back in the Summer of COVID, we relaxed some zoning requirements to make it easier for restaurants and pubs to have outdoor patios. Those provisions were necessarily temporary at the time, and we are now extending to January 2022. Specifically, these are the provisions that reduce by two the amount of off-street parking required for these businesses. We are also waiving the need for a public hearing.

My only question was why we were not doing this permanently. I would much rather pubs and restaurants use parking spaces to serve customers food and add to the street scene than use them to place cars. Every part of that is consistent with our OCP goals and our Climate Action goals – if it a good idea during COVID, it is also a good idea in the port-COVID world. Staff will be coming back to us with a report about making this permanent, as it may have implications about the provincial liquor license process, which is set up for temporary permits, and we need to assure things are aligned.

Uptown Streetscape Vision – Final Report
The City has been working on a visioning process for the streetscape of the major commercial nexus Uptown. This is not about immediately going out to build the changes, it is about creating a coherent design and engineering vision for the area so that when we make changes, they fit the bigger vision. That could be the City going in to improve a pedestrian space, or it could be a developer re-building a block face, we want everything to fit together, and this streetscape plan provides that.

There are some principles baked into here that I strongly endorse. The major elements of Uptown were designed at the time of peak car supremacy, and in some places cars have 4.5 meter-wide driving lanes while pedestrians are asked to share a 1.8m sidewalk with benches, trees, mailboxes, signs and other “furniture”. This balance needs to be shifted, especially if we hope to bring more activity to the space. We also need to re-balance curb space allocation so priority uses (bus stops, accessibility, and business loading zones) take priority and are more optimally located. We also want to support businesses with parklets, patios, and bicycle parking, and we want to assure safe pedestrian movements are prioritized at all crossings.

I love the design for the Belmont and 6th intersection, and think the “raised” crosswalk with special pavement treatment is a real game-changer about how this space is used. I also think the treatment at 6th Street and 7th Ave is a really big step in making 7th Ave a safer route – but the cul-de-sac closure may work better on the east side than the west, but that’s a detail we can work out.

That said, I fundamentally don’t agree with the routing of the east side cycling connection to NWSS, and do not think routing bikes down a narrow back alley is the best option for us as we are creating a raft of visibility and conflict and issues. That are just as present in a residential neighbourhood with wide boulevards as they are in busy commercial areas. I can rant about this at length (and I did in the meeting, you can see in the video), but we need to build better than this in connecting our premier greenway with the new school.

So all this to say, we have more work to do on this critical two-block link, but I don’t want that to take away from all of the good in this plan. So I will endorse the plan today, with the asterisk that the school connection is not the one I think the City should build.

Pumping Up Savings in Heating Pilot Program
The City may partner with the Community Energy Association to pilot a residential Heat Pump program. I recused myself from this discussion as I am the current Chair of the Board of the Community Energy Association. Though the City of New Westminster is a member of the CEA, my position is a volunteer one, and I have pecuniary interest, to avoid the perception of conflict I am happy to step out of this conversation.


We then ran though the Bylaw readings of the day including the following Bylaws for Adoption:

Engineering User Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw No. 8247, 2020
This Bylaw that annually sets our rates for a variety of fees for service in the City was adopted.

Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw No. 8248, 2020
As mentioned above, this Bylaw that sets next year’s Electrical Utility rates was adopted.

Revenue Anticipation Borrowing Amendment Bylaw No. 8243, 2020
As mentioned above, this Bylaw that empowers staff to draw up to $3M on a line of credit to get us through an unanticipated cash crunch was adopted

Grimston Park Amendment Bylaw No. 8219, 2020
As mentioned above, this Bylaw that transfers over to the province a small portion of Grimston Park under the footings of the new pedestrian overpass was adopted.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (909 First Street) Bylaw No. 8188, 2020
As discussed in a Public Hearing back on June 22nd, this zoning amendment that would see a small set of townhouses build in Glenbrooke North was adopted by Council.

Housing Agreement Amendment (616 – 640 Sixth Street) Bylaw
As discussed back on November 9th, this amendment to the housing agreement that shifts the market condo portion of this planned development in Uptown to secured market rental (along with slightly reducing the height of the building) was adopted by Council.

Electrical Utility Amendment Bylaw No. 8226, 2020
This Bylaw that annually sets our rates for a variety of fees for service in the electrical department was adopted.


Finally we had one piece of New Business:

Review of Firework Policy and Regulation in New Westminster
There was a lot of conversation about fireworks around Halloween this year, and lots of fireworks. Although New West already has pretty restrictive rules (no sales, and use limited to specific hours without a permit), some cities are getting more restrictive on their use, and more people are raising concerns about nuisance, impact on animals, and other issues. At the same time, these is a significant cultural component to fireworks, and if we want to be an inviting, inclusive city, we need to think about how to balance those concerns. So we are asking Staff to report back on us about what other Cities are doing. This should be the start of an interesting conversation.

And that was it for the evening. Next week is already looking like a doozy…

Council PH – Nov 26th 2020

We had Public Hearing last week on a single Heritage Restoration Agreement project in that funny part of the city that might be Glenbrook North or Massey Victory Heights, but is really Upper Sapperton. There was some sensitive timing around the project, so it was held on a Thursday Night. The project is a bit of a different one. A previous HRA project on the site went off the rails when the previous owner mistakenly thought that they could protect a heritage house by first knocking it down. That did not go over well with Council.

The current owner has a plan to rebuild that house on the same foot print, essentially building a replica of the heritage house. They will then move a second heritage house from Royal Avenue up to this spot and locate it a subdivision of the original lot. Both properties would then be improved with a Laneway House. In exchange for permanent protection of the moved heritage house and re-building the replica, the proponent is requesting subdivision to lots smaller than typical for RS-1 (to ~4,000 square feet) and density measured by FSR higher than permitted on both resultant lots. of the demolished heritage house on site. There would also be a reduced from setback, though this is to permit the use of the original floorplate of the demolished house and align the new house with it.

The Community Heritage Commission and Land use Planning Committee both approved the plan. Community consultation took place, and some feedback was received. The critical arguments were the density being requested, and loss of parking (though there are no parking relaxations being requested –one more off-street parking spot than required is being planned).

We had two parties connect through the Public Hearing, a team representing the proponent, and a neighbor expressing density concerns. We also received a couple of pieces of correspondence from neighbours, both in favour and opposed (with density again being the point of contention). I think that the type of infill we are seeing here is a good thing for the neighbourhood, and will provide a wider range of living options for people in close proximity to the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Recreation Centre replacements, the Justice Institute, and relatively nearby schools and shopping, and immediately adjacent to the Crosstown Greenway.

In the end, Council voted to approve the HRA proposal, and we all went on with our Thursday nights.

Budget 2021 – part 3

We had another budget workshop last week, and I’m sorry I’m so late getting to writing about it, but the usual level of chaos in my life was amped up a bit by too many meetings this week, including a chance to Fan-Boy on the two best “City beat” reporters in BC.

In the November 23rd workshop, Council took a first review of the Operating Budget. This is the money we spend day to day in the operations of the City. Not the buildings and equipment we use, but the staff in those buildings and the fuel for that equipment. And this is the budget that relates directly to the tax rate calculation for next year. One of the complicating factors in how we assess “the budget” is that we really have more than one. I have already talked about the Capital Budget and I already talked about Utilities, so I am going to ignore both of those as much as I can and talk just about Operations here.

The math form the 2020 budget looks like this:

So about 70% of our revenue in the general Operations Fund (aside from utility rates) comes from your property taxes. We also make money selling services (like concession stand hot dogs, swimming fees, and parking), a bit from senior government grants, more from “contributions” (casino money, etc.), and “Other” (which includes license fees, permitting fees, fines, interest on savings, an such). You can see the departmental breakdown of where the money is spent (in this case, shown without utility spending), and the breakdown of what we spend the money on (about 50% paying people, 35% buying stuff, 15% on financial stuff like amortization and interest).

2020 was (no surprise) a challenging year. Revenues fell short by almost $4 Million in sales of services (recreation fees, Anvil events, parking), an equal amount in lost Casino revenue, and about $1 million in other revenues. We also had significant operation savings, especially in staff costs related to not having to hire auxiliary staff to provide those suspended services like recreation classes, reduced training costs and suspensions of hiring at the peak of the Pandemic. We also had some unexpected costs related to the Pier Park fire and operating the Emergency Operations Centre for Pandemic response. The emergency Pandemic support money provided by the Province and Federal Government definitely helped and it looks like we are going to be in ok financial shape at the end of the year. We got through.

That said, we are not home and dry. To quote Ford Prefect, “We could not even be said to be home and vigorously toweling ourselves off.” The Pandemic is still here, and is still impacting our function and our finances. This makes modelling for 2021 difficult. We don’t know when revenues will come back, and certainly expenses are going to come back faster. We have to make some assumptions, and have to be conservative about those to keep ourselves from getting into financial trouble. We are assuming that $5 million of casino revenues are not coming back next year, that recreation programs and other sales of service will still be curtailed to the tune of $1.8M, and that we will be spending $550,000 on COVID response programs.

Once we set that as a baseline, we can project the “fixed” cost increases in the City related to already negotiated annual salary increases and inflation, which will be about $2.1 Million above 2020, and that our Capital Program as currently envisioned (mostly, that we break ground on the CGP replacement) will cause about $1.6 Million in debt financing costs. Staff have identified about $1 Million in operational efficiencies or savings, and have identified $3 Million in potential budget “enhancements” (new stuff we could do, or new staff we may need to meet the strategic goals set out be Council). Put that together, you end up with about a 6.3% tax increase in 2021. Yes, Council asked for  lot of stuff over the last year.

If we don’t want the tax increase to be that big, we need to cut some stuff from the budget, which is what most of the conversation from this point forward will be about. We spent some of the workshop discussion various “enhancements” and hearing reports from staff about their departmental operations and pressures that would either support or not those “enhancements”. When we get back together on December 7th, staff will have hopefully worked through those comments and come back with a draft budget that we can then start adjusting.

So all that to say, there is a *lot* of information in the public reports about the budget you can read here, and lots of it was related in the public meeting the video of which you can see here, and we have some work to do.

Budget 2021 – part 2

I wrote a bit about last week’s Council Workshop on the Capital Budget a few days ago, complete with some ugly pies. This post I am going to write about the second half of that presentation – the draft utility budgets for 2021.

As I have mentioned before, the City has more than one budget. The General Fund is all of the stuff we do to provide general City services, from parks and recreation to police and fire services to fixing potholes and supporting arts. The General Fund has a few funding sources including senior government contributions and fees related to permits or parking or fitness classes, but the bulk of it comes from property taxes. In that sense, it is the big fund that Council has close-to-unlimited authority to spend on providing a suite of services.

The Utility Funds are different, and are accounted differently. Outside of occasional senior government grant programs, all of what you pay for water, sewer, or solid waste, goes directly to paying to provide those services. No property tax is used to pay for providing those services, and paying for those services does not offset property taxes. (I am purposely putting our Electrical Utility aside, because it is unique in New West, as I’ve talked about before).

Utility rates are going up faster than property taxes. This is not because of Council largesse or pet projects, but because the cost of delivering these services is going up. To be more accurate, the cost for delivering these services *sustainably* is going up. More on that below.

I did some posts a couple of years ago that used a type of flow diagram to show what happens to the money you spend on your water, sewer, and solid waste bills. The numbers have gotten a little larger, but the proportions have stayed about the same, so the diagrams are still useful even if I don’t have the time or energy to update them right now.

Keep in mind that like all of our budgeting, the law tells us to create a 5-year budget plan. We update this plan every year, so even though we are currently looking to approve 2021-2025 budgets, we are really only approving the 2021 rate increases. The future rate increases are projected in order to inform our planning, but the rate increases in 2022 and beyond are really up to the discretion of future Councils. With that in mind, here is where we see the budgets going.

Water
We foresee collecting just under $15 Million in water fees this year, compared to $13.7M in last year’s budget. That is about a 10% increase. Part of that will come from selling more water (the City is growing), and the rest from a 7% increase in water rates. Here’s where the money is projected to go:

Water is the money we pay Metro Vancouver for the water in the pipes. Operations is the cost of running the utility day to day (staff, materials, power, water quality testing, etc.). Capital is the cost of replacing or building new pipes, valves, meters, hydrants, and all the hard parts that keep water flowing. Transfers are the exchange of money between the Water Utility and the General budget of the City. The “City” buys water from the Utility to run city hall, arenas, the pools, watering flowers, etc. At the same time, the Water Utility uses City equipment and personnel to do some of their work – from billing to road crews, and because the Utility by law must be separate from the General fund, these transfers must be accounted for. Every year, the Utility uses a little more City services than it collects from us in water charges. Finally, Reserves are the money the Utility puts aside in a reserve fund for a variety of purposes, which I will talk about below.

Sewers
We foresee collecting just over $24 Million in sewer fees this year, compared to about $22.5 Million in 2020. That is about a 7% increase. We are also projecting to collect another $3.6 Million in DCC money and capital grants (I talk about how that works here). That will predominantly come from a 7% increase in sewer rates. Here is where we expect that money to go:

With the same categories as water above (instead of paying for water, we are charged by volume by Metro Vancouver for the treatment of our waste water), you can see it is a little different. We are budgeting for a much bigger capital expenditure in 2021 for sewers, and we are actually going to dip a bit into our reserves to pay for that – which is why I put the blue box with the arrow above the line there to show the offset of costs from dipping into reserves.

Solid Waste
We foresee collecting $3.74M in users fees this year, compared to $3.35 Million last year (we also collect other revenue of a little under a million dollars in this utility) the utility rate increase works out to about 12%. Here’s where the money is projected to go:

You can see the solid waste utility works different that water and sewer. Though the per-tonne “tipping cost” of depositing waste at Metro Vancouver and private facilities is significant and going up, there is much more operational and transfer costs than other utilities. This is because of the nature of the work – we have collection trucks running 5 days a week that need crews and fuel. Also unique here is the fact we are running with a deficit in our reserves for solid waste, which will hopefully turn around by 2022, and this is not unrelated to why the rates are increasing so much.


I want to wrap this up by talking about our reserves. This is the money that each of these utilities have “in the bank” (well, Solid Waste has a deficit in the bank, but follow me here). We often talk about the main reason our utility rates are going up is because the cost of operating them is going up, but that is only partly true. We are also raising rates to build up our reserves.

The reason we have reserves is because they work like a buffer on the system. If we have an unexpected cost like extensive emergency repairs, a catastrophic loss, or have an opportunity to get a big matching fund grant from senior government that requires we are able to pay our half, a healthy reserve gives us that flexibility. Healthy reserves make our utilities *sustainable*. Currently, our reserves are in the order of 2-3% of the value of our assets. With increased awareness of the infrastructure gap so many communities are suffering, the current best practice is to keep reserves between 5% and 10% of the asset value. For this reason, we are continuing to build reserves in each of our Utility funds with an aim to get to that level.

This was a conversation we had in the workshop, and part of our finance staff’s work plan is to do a thorough analysis of our reserves situation as the City’s Asset Management plan is updated.

Overall, a typical household in New West can expect to see their annual utility rates for water, sewer, and solid waste go up by $132 next year, or about $11 more dollars a month.

Budget 2021 – part 1

This week Council had a Workshop instead of a Council meeting. We have these intermittently to dig deeper into subjects than we have time to in a regular meeting. It also allows us to have more of a free-form conversation with staff than the strict structures of a Council meeting. This gives staff a chance to educate Council a bit on the inner workings of their departments, and gives Council a chance to provide more direct feedback. In the end, we usually give staff some “direction” for future work – somewhere between vague ideas and strict orders. This direction should, as best as possible, be reflected in the reports staff eventually bring back to Council for approval, which is sometimes a challenge as Council workshops are 7 people speaking and often providing contradictory direction. Such is the life of a senior management for a city.

The workshop this week (you can watch the video here) was our first discussion of the 2021 Budget, with both some preliminary Capital Budget work and some discussion of Utility Rates. I have written previously about the difference between the City’s Capital Budget and Operational Budget, and have also written about how Utilities are different the General Operations. Damn, I’ve written a lot of stuff about budgets over the years. Here we go again.

Like the rest of our budgeting, we do our Capital budgeting as a 5-year plan. That makes this conversation about framing a 2021-2025 Capital Plan, but 5-year plans are updated every year, so our emphasis is on the planned 2021 capital expenditure. Still, we project into 2022-2025.

I would continue to describe our capital plan as “ambitious”, because we are planning to invest significantly in capital in the next few years. This is in part due to a few of big-ticket items (e.g. the Canada Games Pool replacement and Massey Theatre refit) and partly because some of our strategic goals and climate action plans will require capital outlay in the next couple of years. The budget I talk about here is very much a draft, and will certainly change, but the first pass includes $202 Million in capital spending in 2021. Yikes.

For comparison, our previous 2020-2024 capital plan approved last year was for $475M over 5 years, front-loaded to include $135M in 2020. This brings up the first thing we need to talk about with Capital budgets: we rarely spend all of our capital plan in any given year. Most years I have been on Council, we have had an annual capital plans in the order of about $90M in the current budget year, and $60M in each of the subsequent 4 years. However, usually about $30M of that $90 million doesn’t get done in that year. This is because projects are delayed, because other priorities come up, partnership money doesn’t materialize in time, or any of numerous factors. For whatever reason, about a third of “this year” in the Capital Budget commonly sgets pushed forward into “next year”. Meaning next years capital budget will go from the forecast of $60M to $90M, and the cycle repeats.

2020 was obviously a unique year. It started off that way because our Capital Budget had expanded due to Council priorities and we anticipated about $135M in budgeted capital delivery in 2020. The Pandemic response caused that to go off the rails early in the year, and although we did/will deliver something like $50M in capital works, that means $85M in approved capital works have been pushed forward into 2021 Add to this the $117M in 2021 capital plan works (most of which was already in the 2020-2024 5-year plan) and you get $202M. Realistically, we will deliver about $142M of this and push $60M into 2022.

**It is probably worth pointing out again, I am using rough estimate numbers here. The bills for 2020 have not all come in yet, as the year isn’t over, and we have not settled on what the Capital Budget will look like as a Council yet. I am just relating the very-draft numbers we used to guide our deliberations in the workshop. None of this is fixed in certainty yet.**

In the report provided to Council there was a big spreadsheet that set out all of the planned capital expenditures as 500+ line items, from $2,000 for scheduled replacement of Emergency Radio batteries to $84,000,000 for the Canada Games Pool replacement. And yes, we went through them line-by line and have asked staff questions about many of them. We will be asking more questions line-by line, and many of those lines are going to change.

In the workshop, we went though various ways to “clump” this capital spending to make the big number relatable and better set priorities. The first big division is by “fund”. We have a General Fund that is all the stuff you pay for ostensibly through property taxes (parks, police, fire, roads, planning, bylaws, council, etc.) and we have Utility funds that are paid for through users fees (Electrical, Water, Sewer, and Solid Waste). That breaks down like this:

Putting aside the Utility Funds for a bit (until next post), we can break down the General Fund in various ways, be it through the function or departments where the capital will be spent:

Or through the types of things we are paying for with the capital funds (and here is where the clumping gets a  little more subjective – you may clump a little differently than me):

As we went through in the workshop, these can be further clumped by how much is spent on each Council Priority (this one clumps the utility capital in with the general fund capital, because Council Priorities end up in both):

Any way you slice it, $200M is a lot of pie. As you can see in all of these, the $84M for the replacement for the Canada Games Pool is the biggest item, by far. It is currently shown as a 2021 expense, and we will likely be making a decision on whether to commit that funding in 2021, but the actual bill is not likely to be paid all in one chunk in 2021. $84M in one year looks big, but in reality it will stretch out over a couple of years as we take money out of reserves and issue debt to pay the construction bills.

As we went through the spreadsheets at the workshop, different Councilors emphasized different priorities, and asked for more details on several lines. I suspect (and I am speaking only as one of 7 members of Council here, not on behalf of anyone else) I think this list will be whittled down a bit, and that there is no way we will have the operational capacity to get all of this capital work done in one year. The real numbers will become more apparent in December after some significant back-and-forth between Capital and Operational budgets.

Next time, I’ll talk a bit about the preliminary Utility Budgets and what we can (or can’t) do about ever-increasing utility rates.

Council – Nov 9 2020

We had a lot of business for the November 9th meeting. A bunch of items will go to Public Hearing, so more exciting meetings in the near future. We also had a couple of presentations and public delegations, which you can listen to/watch online if you are into that kind of thing, and a pretty large and slightly messy agenda due to late additions and timing around presentations, so everything here may not be in exact order. Maybe pour some tea, this is a long one:


We started with moving the following items On Consent:

100 Braid Street: Zoning Bylaw Text Amendment and Development Permit to Facilitate Provision of Secured Market Rental Housing with Art Gallery/Studio Space – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
Wesgroup owns the property at 100 Braid, and already has an approved plan to build a high rise mixed-use condo building. They are now proposing to instead build a purpose-built rental building in exchange for a significant (50%) increase in density. This would make for a taller tower (118 metres instead of 65), and would provide 423 rental units, 96 of which would be less-than-market as secured through the CMHC affordable housing program.

These less-than-market units would be just that – priced at a level below the market, but will not meet the City’s definition of “affordable housing”, which is stricter than the federal CMHC standard. One of the presentations you can enjoy if you watch the video is an outline with quite a bit of detail on how the CMHC program works.

This report, however, outlines the project that will be going to Public Hearing, and asks that Council approve the terms of a Housing Agreement that will secure the dedicated rental use of the units in the event that Council approves the final proposal. Council moved to approve those recommendations.

COVID-19 Recovery Public Engagement Input – Summary Report
Further to engaging the public on the City’s Pandemic strategy, we had a recent City-wide engagement and survey effort, and had something close to 1,300 responses, which is a pretty impressive for any non-dog-park-related survey. The report and resultant graphics are really worth checking out in some detail.

Themes coming out of the survey were general support for efforts to create more accessible public spaces (and desire for more covered outdoor spaces, public WiFi, and public washrooms), and significant concerns about homelessness and housing security. In general, people support efforts to improve pedestrian spaces in the City, value public spaces, and are encouraging us to push forward on environmental initiatives and reconciliation. There is much more in here, but this is a really valuable touchpoint I think for Council as we are half way through this somewhat-disrupted term. Our Public Engagement team is doing great work these days.

Extension of Sidewalk/Street Patios and Parklets to Support Business Recovery
We made some temporary changes in how we manage patios in the City, following up on the change in Provincial regulations on how restaurants and pubs can serve on patios, and to give food service providers more flexibility in how they adapt to the COVID world. With these temporary changes extended to next fall, the City is looking at how we can support winterizing these spaces if businesses want to go that step.

Budget 2021 – Upcoming Budget Workshops
Our budget 2021 engagement process is ongoing, and we are doing everything we can to make this the most transparent and public budget deliberation process the City has ever had. This has included more effort to “demystify” municipal finance, so that people are better empowered to have a meaningful engagement. There are going to be pressures on our 2021 budget related to COVID, but Council has still been clear (supported by some of that public engagement I talked about above) that we do not want to slow down on Climate Action or cut services that support the community at this difficult time.

Preliminary numbers are very preliminary, but inflation and collective agreements give us a 2.3% tax increase baseline, with various COVID and strategic plan pressures pushing us up over 7%. That said, it was just announced that the City is in line for about $6 Million in COVID relief grant money from senior government, which should help address some of the significant operational revenue gaps in our current budget.

There are workshops coming up in November and December to go through the Capital Budget, Utility rates, and Operating budget, with the goal of having a draft budget together by the end of December.

2021 Schedule of Regular Council Meetings
This is the preliminary schedule of council meetings, workshops, and Public Hearings for 2021. As always, subject to change as needs emerge. Mark your calendars!

TransLink/SkyTrain Guideway (22nd Street Station to New Westminster Station): Request to Extend the Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption
SkyTrain rail replacement is an ongoing process to keep the now more than 30 year old system running. For obvious reasons, this work must occur when the SkyTrain is not running, so we are providing a night time construction noise exemption.

273 and 275 Sherbrooke Street: Development Permit – Consideration of Waiver
Back in 2012, E.Fry proposed to expend their services in Sapperton and went through an OCP Amendment and Rezoning to support that. It was a high-profile application at the time, with a couple of very lengthy Public Hearings, before Council almost unanimously supported the rezoning.

The proponent is now ready to go forward with the approved project, but in the meantime the City has adopted a new OCP, this property did not fall within a Development Permit Area, meaning that the proponent now ostensibly requires a Development Permit for something already approved for the site. Council is proposing to waive that DP process, in light of the significant public process and design review the project already completed. Notably, the proposed use (supportive housing for women and children) is a more urgent need now than even in 2012 when the project was approved.

835 Royal Avenue: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Bylaws for First and Second Readings and Heritage Register Addition
There is an old house you may not have noticed on the hill on Royal Ave. I used to live right across the street, and I hardly knew it was there, but it is one of the oldest intact houses in New West. The owner wants to preserve it through an HRA, stratify it into three units, and build a three-unit townhouse project on a subdivided back of the property.

This would go to a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until after then.

631 Second Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Bylaws for Two Readings and Addition to Heritage Register
The owner of this small heritage house in Glenbrooke North wants to subdivide their lot and build a small infill house on the second lot while preserving the existing heritage house. The HRA request is related to the lots being compact, and the FSR for the two houses to be above what is currently permitted in the zone.

This would go to a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until after then.

709 Cumberland Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
The owner of this property in upper Sapperton wants to subdivide it, move a heritage house from downtown to one lot, and re-build a storied-and-destroyed heritage house on the other lot, add laneway houses, and preserve the heritage house by an HRA. This would exceed the allowable FSR for both compact lots, and require various other allowances.

This would go to a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until after then.

EV User Fee Implementation at City Owned Public Charging Stations: Bylaw for Three Readings
On the recommendation of the Electrical Utility Commission, the City is following the lead of other municipalities across North America and starting to charge user fees for vehicle charging stations. This is not much of a revenue driver, when you amortize the infrastructure costs of the chargers, but it does create a more fair allocation of a limited resource, and improves access to the charging stations overall. Our pricing will be similar to that being introduced across the region – generally $1 or $2/hr for Level 2 chargers and $16/hr for the Fast Chargers at Queens Park, which is again consistent across the region.

Q to Q – Resumption of Service Plan
The Q to Q Ferry was one of the services the City cut back at the beginning of the Pandemic. Initially, there was little in the way of public health guidance on how to run it safely, and superficially similar to TransLink services and other passenger ferries like in False Creek and the Victoria Harbour, there were some challenges in understanding if people would use the service and what the cost issues related to adapting to COVID-safe operations were. Both of the False Creek ferry operators are now up and running (with reduced capacity), and the Victoria Habour ferries had some financial issues, but got a very limited operation going at the end of the summer before suspending for the winter. I need to note that those three services are very different than the QtoQ in that they run on calm water with much lighter boats, and in that they are self-supporting, run completely on fare revenue, while the QtoQ is significantly subsidized by local taxpayers on both sides of the river.

The resumed service will be limited to morning and evening during the week and shorter hours on the weekend. There are new details about payment and queueing and operations to keep everyone safe. We have to see if people show up, and will be closely monitoring usage. This has created quite the discussion in the community and in Council about the role of the QtoQ, and perhaps I’ll expand on that in a follow up blog post once the ferry is back up and running.

Westminster Pier Park Management Oversight Committee: Westminster Pier Park – Fire Recovery Update
This report provides a bunch of detail about the current situation with Pier Park. I had a professional interest in the challenges related to managing the demolition and environmental remediation of the debris (they are significant), but the bigger community interest is more about when can we open Pier Park again, what is all of this going to cost us, an when do we start the re-build?

Short answers are: probably early in 2021, as we have work to do to assure the park is safe and has emergency access; It is insured, but how that insurance plays out is going to be a long conversation negotiated with stakeholders as the clean-up alone with be counted in the $Millions; It is way too early to start talking re-build, as the pier is a complicated piece of jurisdiction involving the federal government, First Nations, the Port of Vancouver, and the rail companies. The parallels with the White Rock pier damage are superficial; this is a much larger and more complex situation in a part of the waterfront considered “Working River” by the Port. I really hope the community can be involved in visioning a replacement, but that is work for 2021 and beyond. Sorry, I just don’t see those 2 acres of deck being replaced any time soon.


We then had an on-table report and Presentation from staff:

COVID update from the Province
There were new orders from the provincial health authority, and we are in the Fraser Health region where the current COVID situation is… not good.

In short, we are cutting back on some recreation programs, and are making facemasks mandatory in all indoor City facilities. This is consistent with Public Health orders, and makes or a safer workplace for our staff, and safer public spaces for our residents.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the Five Task Forces
This is our regular update from the internal task forces coordinating the City’s response to the ongoing pandemic. Attached to this is an update report on Child Care stresses during the Pandemic, including the results of a survey of childcare operators across the city to determine how their Pandemic response and recovery is impacting their operations. Council also raised some concern about the slow pace of rolling our emergency housing space with wintery weather arriving right now.

404 Second Street: Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Bylaws for Two Readings and Addition to Heritage Register
The owner of the butcher shop in Queens Park wants to expand the building, formalize the now non-conforming land use, and enter into an agreement to restore and preserve the building, in one of the more unusual HRAs in this week’s Agenda full of HRAs.

This would go to a Public Hearing, so I’ll hold my comments until after then.

515 Fourth Street – Heritage Revitalization Agreement and Heritage Designation – Bylaws for First and Second Readings and Addition to Heritage Register
The owner of this modest heritage house in Queens Park wants to convert it to a duplex and build an infill house on the lot, then convert the property to strata ownership. This would require some relaxations for set back and parking, though the FSR (0.79) and number of residential units (3) would comply with existing entitlements in the OCP and the Development Permit area. This was an unusual application, in that it bounced around committees for a while, and the Land Use Planning Committee did not recommend it to Council, but the owner does have the right to be heard before Council to determine if there is any support for the proposal.

We had a bit of e-mail feedback from a few members of the Queens Park heritage community, and two delegations opposed to the application. It appears that the opposition was partly to the idea of stratification of HRAs (though the City has approved many stratified HRAs, at least 4 in the last three years), and partly just a feeling the plan was “too dense”, though again I have to note the density (measured by FSR), lot coverage, and massing were all within existing entitlements and guidelines.

The option before Council was to approve first and second reading, which would send the application to a Public Hearing. Council voted in a split vote to not give the application these readings, essentially ending the project as it is (I voted with the minority to support the application going to Public Hearing). The owner will need to bring something else to Council if they want to make changes on the lot that are not within the existing zoning.

Miscellaneous Zoning Bylaw Amendments: Zoning Bylaw Amendment Bylaw for First and Second Readings
Our Zoning Bylaw is a big, complicated document that is constantly being amended. As people read it or try to interpret it, sometimes they discover things that are inconsistent internally, places where it doesn’t match other City policies, grammatical errors, math errors, and such. When discovered, staff put these in a pile, and occasionally that pile comes to us as an omnibus Amendment Bylaw like this. There are a number of changes here, and they will all go to Public Hearing. If you have opinions about Massage Services permitting or metric conversion, or anything else in here, please let us know.

616 and 640 Sixth (Orr Development): Development Variance Permit, Housing Agreement Modification and Project Update
Back in 2019, Council approved the first new multi-family development in the Uptown commercial core in more than a decade. It was a notable Public Hearing because it was a combination of secured market rental and condo ownership, and led some people to critique those two tenure types having different entrances. Some characterized it as a “poor doors” situation, though there was no non-market housing component involved in the project.

The proponent has, apparently, been doing some number crunching since that approval, and has determined that making the entire building purpose-built-rental is a better plan for them. They also want to reduce (!) overall height by two stories, offset by a 6% increase in the floorplate of the tower, and reduce some of the parking required to better suit the needs related to rental tenure. This requires an update Housing Agreement and amendment to the Development Permit.

Shine Bright New West Holiday Initiative
The traditional Christmas Tree lighting at Hyack Square can’t really happen this year, as we don’t want to be having large group gatherings. So in working with the BIAs, staff from Special Events division and Economic Development have another plan to “light up” the town during the Christmas season. Light displays around town by businesses, supported by the City, and planned self-guided walking tours so you and your bubble can enjoy without the issues around crowds.

The majority of Council supported this new model, but some concerns were raised on whether while expanding the program beyond just Downtown, we were spreading it a little thin, and perhaps we wanted to add more funding to assure that each commercial district has sufficient funding to make for a successful program, so we approved in principle, and asked staff to come back with expansion plans if appropriate.

It’s going to be a different Christmas this year, folks, I hope you can find a new way to make it fun with your family and friends, and can support local businesses who are going through as challenging as time as ever.

Tobacco Free Water Pipe Smoking Premises (Hookah Lounges)
The City received requests to consider a Hookah Lounge, though no formal location or application was received. This is not compliant with the City’s regulations or with provincial regulations around indoor smoking in businesses, and we simply didn’t have a zoning or business permitting to allow this use

Council approved the staff recommendation to not change our Bylaws to permit this use, mostly based on the recommendations from Public Health. The only municipality that does allow Hookah Lounges (Burnaby) has signaled their intent to change that allowance in the near future. Not permitting indoor Hookah use in commercial businesses is consistent with the City’s approach to tobacco, cannabis, and vaping regulations.


We then had two items that were discussed in a closed meeting, but we are now Releasing from Closed:

British Columbia Youth Parliament (BCYP) Nomination – 92nd Parliamentary Session (Originally closed because of privacy of potential candidates)
The City has the ability to nominate a local youth to take part in the BCYP, and we are doing so!

Port of Vancouver Lands at 430 Canfor and Traffic Management (Originally closed because it may involve details of negotiations with senior governments)
It was moved that staff report back to Council on the traffic impacts of the change of land use at 430 Canfor, measures by the Port to assure traffic related to the current use is not creating an unsafe condition for other road users, and on opportunities for the City to address any safety concerns related to traffic with the Port of Vancouver.
In short, the property is Port of Vancouver land, so we don’t have any jurisdictional control over its use, but there have been some concerns raised that the type of use (essentially, a park-and-ride for workers at various TMX work sites) is having negative traffic impacts, so we are asking staff to work with the Port and the operator on site to look into this.


We then Adopted the following Bylaws:

Development Services Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw (Amusement Arcade) No. 8228, 2020
This is one of the smaller bylaw changes that would need to occur to permit the formalization of the arcade use for a site in Sapperton, and it is now the law of the land.

Engineering Fees and Rates Bylaw Amendment No. 8230, 2020
Development Services Fees and Rates Amendment Bylaw No., 8232, 2020 and
Cultural Services Fees and Charges Amendment Bylaw No. 8241, 2020
These are the Bylaws that set our fees for service for the next year as part of our annual budgeting process. Now adopted by Council!


Finally, a bit of New Business:

Litter Receptacle Optimization Initiative
I resolved that:

THAT Staff provide an update report on the litter receptacle optimization initiative introduced to Council on October 2019, outlining any operational savings and metrics on the impact to street litter and illegal dumping.

A little more than year ago, staff provided a report for information about plans to change how they deal with litter receptacles in parts of the City. This included the removal of some problematic receptacles where people were dumping domestic garbage, and a new plan for addressing and tracking litter in the commercial districts. At the time, Council had some questions about the plan, but staff indicated they would be tracking the program and report back to us.

In short, it was expected that reducing trash cans in some public places may actually reduce litter and illegal dumping. Some people (including me) were incredulous of this idea, but staff did reinforce this was based on experience in other jurisdictions, and becoming a well-accepted practice. As counter intuitive as it is, I had to draw parallels between this idea and our modern understanding of how increasing road space actually makes traffic worse, which is an established, if counterintuitive, idea that I have learned to understand. So I was willing to suspect my incredulity and see where this plan from staff went.

In the year since, I have heard members of the public express concern about the lack of trash cans and increased litter. My admittedly anecdotal impression is that litter is increasing in our commercial areas, maybe related to these actions, maybe related to change in behaviours around the Pandemic, or maybe it is just confirmation bias on my part. So I would like, a year later, for staff to report back to us what metrics they have been collecting, share any data they have about litter in the City, and any recommendations they may have to address litter and waste management in our public spaces. Council moved to support this.


And then, whew, we were done.

on Skepticism

I think of myself as a Skeptic. I capitalize that word, because it probably doesn’t mean what you think when I describe myself that way. Some may think it synonymous with cynic or freethinker, which creates this tautology where capital-S Skeptics feel the need to define the term. I think Tim Farley summed it up as well as anyone has: ““Skepticism is the intersection of science education and consumer protection.”

Skepticism is a less a philosophy than a thought process, but it is also a culture and some go so far as to call it a “movement”. Skepticism has its media, it has celebrities, it has conferences, and it had its messiah. It even has, as all burgeoning great movements must, a Great Schism. As traditional Skepticism was organized mostly by white guys, the schism was inevitably about misogyny and representation in the movement, and for the record, I’m on Rebecca’s side on this one.

Since I seem to be going on about definitions, there is no such thing as a “Climate Change Skeptic” or a “Holocaust Skeptic”. One can apply Skeptical principles to determine whether (for example) a carbon tax is an effective policy tool to address consumer-driven emissions of greenhouse gasses, sure. But calling into question whether anthropogenic climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels is happening, and whether it has the potential for catastrophic impacts on global ecosystems that support human society is not “skepticism”, it is denial. Until proven otherwise, and it hasn’t been, it is the scientific consensus. Though seeking to challenge the scientific consensus at every opportunity is the heart of skepticism, understanding the roots of that consensus until a valid challenge is found to it  is the blood running through that heart.

I have been around Skepticism for a long time now, listening to the Skeptics Guide in pre-Rebecca days, I am old enough to remember before Brian Dunning was a convict. I was probably (probably – because memory is fallible) was guided by my Thesis supervisor back when I was an undergrad. But I don’t think back then we could have imagined the role that conspiracy theories and anti-science thought could be playing in larger society – especially American society – now. Well, Carl knew, but he was always a few decades ahead of us.

I’m not sure if it is me, or if it is Joe Rogan, but I feel we are seeing an overall media and politics shift away from the principles of scientific skepticism, and towards faith-based and conspiracy-based cynicism about the world. It would be easy (and lazy) to blame social media, but then Twitter brought this into my life:

Credit: Abbie Richards

This chart is a classification system of conspiracy put together by social media Phenom and alternative golf commentator Abbie Richards (@abbieasr), and I think it is a valuable tool for talking about conspiracy, fanciful though, skepticism, and answering the hardest question of all: “What’s the harm?

I do have some quibbles. UFOs are probably in the right spot, as there are a variety of poorly explained visual phenomenon in the atmosphere, but when one links this to extraterrestrial life, it moves up a category to leaving reality. There may actually be more thinking in here than I read (as Abbie herself adds context in her on-point and hilarious way in her Tik Tok videos), so I’m happy to hear and learn more.

Aside from laughing and enjoying taking a dig here, I think a powerful way to use a tool like this is to keep it in mind when having those slightly-uncomfortable conversations Skeptics are always having. To avoid going off on a Storm-like Mincinian tirade whenever someone uses the term “sheeple” in a conversation, you can instead think about where the thing you just heard fits in the spectrum. Is it worth asking for more details about this idea that is new or strange to you? Go a step up or down the spectrum, see where the common ground is.

So Abbie’s great diagram entered my world when I’ve been thinking a lot about Skepticism. It may be because we just lost James Randi, who really was the spiritual leader of a movement, if there is a movement, and we accept that “spirit” is a collective drive towards something as opposed to a supernatural force.

Or maybe the fact-free US election may be part of it. It’s not just that the discussion down south isn’t around substantive things, it’s that the very idea that facts exists, that there is an objective reality that is somehow verifiable, seems to have fallen by the wayside for a large number of people. In its on way, our own BC election was almost completely bereft of policy conversation, instead discussion of who do you “like”, who do you “trust”, and who is “connecting” with whatever “voter demographic.” So we end up with very popular, but completely nonsensical, ideas like fixing traffic by removing road tolls and selling hydrocarbon fuels as the key to Climate Action.

So, as someone who was almost certainly not Carl Sagan once said, ““Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”

Council – Oct 26 2020

Our Pre-Halloween Council meeting was not the least bit spooky, but there was some important stuff on the Agenda. We had a workshop earlier in the day to work through some topics that will be on future agendas, but this meeting started with a bit of Old Business:

MOTION: Street Naming
Councillor Das brought the following motion forward in a previous meeting, but because of some scheduling issues, we only got to it now:

BE IT RESOLVED THAT city staff bring a report to council that includes a review and update to the current naming policy, with clear direction on the name selection criteria and name selection process.

There have been at least two previous motions of a similar nature in my time on Council, one asking about updating our very, very dated street naming guidance document, another asking for a review of naming policy for all City facilities. We have not seen those reports yet, so this will hopefully prompt some quicker action.

The first thing to consider is the policy guidance we use when naming a new street, square, public space, or building, as we semi-often have to do, and it seems a little ad hoc each time. The second aspect is what to do if there is a community call the change the name of an existing City asset. It would seem a simple thing to change the name of (for example) McBride Boulevard to Woodsworth Boulevard, but what does it mean for the dozens of businesses and households that now have to change their addresses? What is the formal process for that (land title office, etc.), and what are the costs? Is there an expectation that the City compensate property owners who have been impacted? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, and we really should before we even entertain street name modernizations.

With a few Council amendments to clarify aspects of the issue Council wanted the report to cover, it was moved unanimously.


The following items were then Moved on Consent:

Approval of Terms of Reference: Reconciliation, Social Inclusion and Engagement Task Force
Late last year, Council changed our advisory committees and Task Forces up, and have a new Reconciliation, Social Inclusion and Engagement Task Force (RSIETF). This report provides the Terms of Reference for that Task Force as proposed by the Task Force members.

Release of Resolution from Closed Meeting Related to Approval for Grant Application to the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program – Community, Culture and Recreation Infrastructure Stream: New Westminster Aquatic and Community Hub – Active Transportation Greenways and Outdoor Play Areas
There is some stuff we talk about in closed because it involves commercially sensitive negotiations and agreements with senior governments. But if the result of these discussions result in us needing to spend money, they have to show up in the budget, so the resolution needs to be removed from Closed. In this case, we are releasing that we intend to apply for a grant for some work related to the NWACH (the weirdly-acronymic working name for the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre replacement), and we are authorizing staff to enter into a finding agreement with senior government should we be successful.

457 East Columbia Street (Arcade): Rezoning and Liquor Primary Application – Bylaws for Readings
The arcade in Sapperton wants a liquor license. It has been a somewhat difficult application because it doesn’t fit neatly into any regulatory box for either the City or the Province, and licenses like this need to fit neatly in a box or the province just won’t play and the City quickly gets itself buried in paperwork as we try to guide a business through the process. We now need to amend three separate bylaws to make it work. This was further delayed just before the COVID disruption by a change in direction by the Liquor Branch over the type of license that should apply. The arcade has been operating for a couple of years on a temporary license while they get these detail worked out, no doubt causing quite a bit of stress to the operators, as a liquor license will improve their business plan.

The project has done its community engagement (again, a provincial requirement for a new Liquor Primary license) and the three Bylaw Amendments have been drafted. Council gave the Bylaws preliminary readings, and will consider adoption on November 30th. If you have opinions, let us know.

610 Sixth Street (Royal City Centre): Grease Trap Removal and Replacement – request for Construction Noise Bylaw Exemption
Save-On Foods needs to replace a critical part of their sewer infrastructure, and it has to happen at night. They need a construction noise variance to do so.

221 Townsend Place: Heritage Revitalization Agreement – Preliminary Report
There is a house on a unique lot tucked away in Queens Park that has “significant aesthetic and scientific value” (which is a use of the word “scientific” that is laughable, but I digress) where the owner would like to subdivide the lot and insert another infill house, in exchange for HRA preservation of the existing house. Essentially, they are building a full size house similar to adjacent houses on the yard portion of the property instead of a laneway house, and are subdividing.

This is a preliminary report, and will go to further public and committee review, so let us know if you have an opinion.

805 Boyd Street (Queensborough Landing): Proposed Text Amendment to the Large Format Commercial Districts (C-10) Zone to Permit a Self-Improvement School Use – Bylaw for First and Second Readings
The Queensborough Landing big-box retail extravaganza has a few empty spots, and a Kumon Learning Centre wants to open up in one of the vacant boxes. This doesn’t strictly fit the existing zoning, so they are asking for an amendment to the zoning language to allow it. It is perhaps emblematic of the entire zoning process that they had to do a “parking analysis” to determine that they had almost a thousand extra parking spaces. Parking, it’s like a drug.

We are going to waive the public hearing here and gave the project two readings. If you have opinions, send them to us.

2019 Corporate Greenhouse Gas Emissions Update
Every year, we report on our corporate greenhouse gas emissions as part of our CARIP requirements. Our 2019 emissions were significantly less than 2018, and other than the 2017 hiccup year, we are doing a pretty good job of reducing corporate emissions – 16% below our 2010 baseline though our population and level of service has increased since then. This was on track with our previous goal, but the curve is going to have to bend much faster to get us to our 2030 target of 45% below 2010 levels by 2030. Our new CEERS will get us there.

Residential Yard Trimmings Collection and Disposal Information
It’s raking leaves season. It is important to remind residents that they should put grass, leaves, and trimmings they cannot compost on their own property or use for garden bedding into their green bin, and if they have too much for their green bin, they can put them into kraft paper bags placed next to their Green Bin. There is no limit on the number of kraft bags the City will collect for free. If you have a really large number that don’t fit easily in your regular pick-up area, contact Engineering Operations at the City, and they will arrange a special pickup for you. At no cost. Free. You can also drive your green waste to the recycling depot in Coquitlam, but why do that when we will pick them up for free?

Edit: note the above applies to single family detached only. Multi-family units that use the City’s service for green waste disposal are not, apparently, supposed to use it for yard trimmings.

User Fees and Rates Review for 2021, Amendment Bylaws for Three Readings
Here are our rates and user fees for everything from cemetery and sewer services to business licenses. Did you know we have a $76.48 charge for a business license to operate a cigarette vending machine? When is the last time you saw one of those!?

New Normal Staff Committee: 2021 Operating Budget – COVID-19 Impacts
We have a staff committee reviewing City operations and trying to plan through the next phases of the pandemic response, including a potential “return to normal”. That seems, unfortunately, still a way off, and we need to plan the 2021 budget assuming the same revenue issues that we had this year, potentially through to 2022. Even so, many operations of the City are returning, some at significantly increased cost due to pandemic safety measures, and with reduced cost recovery potential. In other words, the financial hit of COVID is still coming, and will continue for a while.

Management Oversight Committee: Westminster Pier Park – Fire Recovery Update
This is a report of the clean-up and recovery from the Pier Park fire, now that we are a month in. The clean up is complicated for a variety of environmental and jurisdictional reasons, and will be expensive. We have insurance coverage for most if not all of it, but there are a variety of details that need to be worked through both as we complete the clean up and start the planning for the post-clean up.

Right now, a significant issue is that the gate by the big W was an important emergency vehicle access to Pier Park during the dig at the Bosa site. It is hard to open the park and invite the public down there when we are not sure we can get a firetruck or ambulance onto the site if needed. We are working through some scenarios to fix that situation, so more to come.

Connaught Heights Residents’ Association Petition, 2035 London Street and 2038 Ninth Avenue, aka ‘Connaught Village Green,’
We received some correspondence from representatives of the Connaught Heights RA where they express concern that they have not been consulted about potential Affordable Housing projects in their neighbourhood. I feel the urge to reply in a similar Open Letter format to refute some of the claims being made. I want to be careful not to speak for all of Council or the City here, but in short: suggestions that we have been anything other than transparent about this process are false, and disrespectful to the staff who have worked hard and spent hours engaging with representatives of this RA. More to come.


The following items were Removed from Consent for discussion:

COVID-19 Pandemic Response – Update and Progress from the Five Task Forces
Our regular update on the task forces the City has running in City Hall addressing Pandemic response. If you want the details of how the City is addressing the evolving needs of the community as we teeter on a second wave, the details are here.

Police Motion – Workplan and Budget for Endorsement
Back in June, we had a joint meeting between the New Westminster Police Board and City Council, and a pretty long and detailed resolution was moved by both parties that encompassed a range of potential reforms for policing in New West. Some are actions that can be taken locally (primarily by the Police Board and Police department – as Council has a very limited role here), and some are more reliant on the Provincial government making reforms to the Police Act and shifting policy and funding in areas of health, addictions, and anti-poverty.

This report provides a bit of a project plan to get these various actions implemented over the next year or so. Some aspects (exploring a pilot project in New Westminster to shift how crisis health management is addressed) will be quicker, some (i.e. those that rely on the Provincial review of the Police Act) will be a bit further down the road. More to come!

2020 City Grants: Highlights and Impact
This is a reporting out on the 2020 Community Grant program. One of the big shifts Council has done this term is to move some of the politics from our granting process by moving more of the application evaluation and award selection process over to staff with less Council input. As a governance model, this makes for more transparency and equity.

The City awarded about $950,000 (combined cash and in-kind services) in grants to 73 organizations doing great work in the arts, sports, community economic development and social support. All of this in a year where many programs were disrupted by COVID, with some programs (like festivals) simply not allowed to go forward while others were strained to provide mission-critical services to vulnerable populations. On a per capita basis, New Westminster is one of the most generous cities in direct grants to organizations in the community, but we are also fortunate to have so many effective not-for-profits in the community working hard to improve the livability or our community. Our grant program is successful because of them.

2021 Budget Process – Proposed Framework
This report outlines our public engagement process for the 2021 budget. Over the last few years, we have been increasingly ramping up public participation in our budgeting process, and we have one of the most open, transparent, and participatory budgets of any City in the lower mainland. We have already started the 2021 consultations, with more than 1,000 people taking part in our budget survey and hundreds watching out budget webinar.

The survey responses were interesting, and I rush to note this was not a scientific survey of randomly selected citizens, but a self-selected survey of what we would think of a “more engaged” cohort of citizens. Still, >1,000 is a good sample size outside of a dog park survey, and the results are at times interesting.

Appreciated the work staff are doing here, and the webinar to provide some context for the survey. I did think there are some things we could explain better – we generally do a poor job differentiating between utility fees for utility operations and other services funded by taxes. If people think maintaining water and sewer infrastructure is a high priority for tax spending, they are not understanding that virtually none of their property tax goes to that. In that sense, even the term “infrastructure” is conflating and confusing – a term so broad as to be sometimes meaningless.

I also don’t think the financial constraints related to COVID have been as clearly reported as I would like. It has been a challenge, as I recognize the sand has been shifting through the summer and fall. But we have been conservative in our spending because of that uncertainty, though much of our discussion of this has been more qualitative than quantitative – we have identified places where revenues are down and where costs have changed, but we have not had a robust discussion around those number yet. That is our work in the months ahead.

It is interesting that climate action ranked fairly low in the priorities list, and I’m not sure what that means in how we roll out a program to make some pretty fundamental shifts in how we manage greenhouse gas emissions in the City. I feel like a bit of a broken record saying it, but the Climate Action we are striving towards right now will for the most part save us money in the long run, so putting it in a budget priority is tough. I think it also tells what we have all known to be true: people want to take action on climate, they just don’t want to pay for it.

The other big part of this report that separates 2021 from previous years is that we are moving many of our budget timelines up in the calendar. By getting some work done earlier, we can have the best part of a draft budget out by the end of December instead of the February-ish thing that has become our standard.


We had two items that were late On Table Additions to the Agenda:

Release of New Westminster Aquatic and Community Centre (NWACC) – Project Status Update
This is another release from closed and another ungainly acronym for the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre Replacement Project (we really need to get those figured out). The short story here is that the pause in the process for the pool replacement project has now been unpaused and we are getting our ducks in a row to go to procurement.

There is more to talk about here, and as I mentioned above, we are not out of the woods as far as COVID impacts on our operations, but at some point we need to decide to pull the trigger on the pool or go very far back on the drawing board and lose not only momentum, but much of the value we have invested in planning and design. We are also going to face some decisions about very necessary and very expensive repairs to the existing Canada Games Pool in a few years as major building and mechanical components reach end-of-life. If we don’t have a new pool ready by then, we run the risk of not having a pool for a significant period of time. So it is time for us to test the construction market in these uncertain times and get a procurement process going. Hopefully, we will be able to give a final go-ahead in January, losing only a couple of months to the COVID delay.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Anti-Racism Framework –Statement of Work
This is the report coming out of the discussion we had in the afternoon Workshop outlining the work plan for the DEIAR we are planning to implement in the City. Good stuff here, and a wide-reaching public engagement process in the community is going to be rolled out over the net month. Please join in and let us know what you think!


Finally, we had one Bylaw for Adoption:

Permissive Tax Exemption Bylaw No. 8220, 2020
The Bylaw that allows permissive property tax exemptions for a variety of non-profits and community service agencies was adopted by Council.

And that was the work for the night. See you in November, Happy Halloween. Stay safe, stay spooky.

Compassing

Are we all enjoying the election?

Looking back, I haven’t actually posted much here about the election. I always get push-back from a few of the readers of this blog that they hate when I get all political and partisan, and just want me to report out on what the City is doing. Commonly, it includes some line like “you are elected to represent the *entire* City not just the lefties”! To which I feel I need to reference the parable of the scorpion and the frog. I’m a politician, I have been blogging about politics since long before I got elected. I have been partisan at times, and critical at times of parties and politicians I actually support. It would be disingenuous for me to put aside my understanding and opinions of public policy when the writ drops. caveat lector.

There is still a week to go, but so far the surprise of the election for me is the lack of surprise in this election. The NDP started with a substantial lead in the polls, and though there was some early correction-to-the-mean, there doesn’t seem to be much of a shift.

As we all learned in 2013, campaigns matter, and the BC Liberal campaign is somewhere between not-where-it-needs-to-be and full-on-dumpster-fire. The Green leader has deftly and swiftly shifted her party’s policy leanings to the left to take up some room vacated by the NDP, but it does not seem to be making an impact on the polling public. The Conservative collapse and retreat to their BC Liberal fall-back was predictable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of last-minute tightening up of the front runners, if for no other reason than to keep viewers and voters awake. But the Libs need more than that. The knives coming out and discussion of Wilkinson’s leadership happening with a week still to go before the election is telling of a “broad tent” coalition without a guiding principle other than hating the other guys getting nowhere (something the NDP would be well served to keep in mind for next election).

One thing I have found interesting his election is (dispassionately?) observing the difference between incumbent campaigns and opposition campaigns. The Liberals especially have needed to re-frame their message significantly from three years ago, and austerity is not front and centre for anyone. But I still haven’t seen any interesting ideas challenging status quo this election. I suspect the NDP don’t need it, the Liberals are not capable, and the Greens are just not loud enough.

One media tool that hasn’t perhaps received as much attention this year as last election in my circles is the CBC Vote Compass. This data aggregator works a bit like a political Myer-Briggs test: you answer some questions to tell them what you think, and it spits back at you some summary of what you think after pressing it through some vague filtering mechanism. Mostly, it distills your complex political landscape into a pithy and compelling graphic that washes out all subtlety. Of course, I dutifully answered my questions and here is my politics sifted down to a single Cartesian point:

There are parts of this that feel accurate to me, no doubt because it was based on my own input. I think of myself as a little more left/progressive than the BCNDP (2020 version at least). The BCLibs supposedly-broad tent is well outside of my campsite; no surprise there. I also think of myself more socially progressive than the BCGreens (2020), but cannot rectify their allegedly being more economically “left” than I am.

I am going to skip over for now the entire can of worms that is drawing a divide between social policy and economic policy. It is, in the technical term, bullshit. Social policy *is* economic policy, and vice versa. Much smarter people than me have plumbed those depths, no point rehashing here. There is also a conceit in thinking that these two axes are the only ones, or even the most important ones, in people’s political narrative. Wherefore the Urbanist?

Instead, I want to pull up this image I dredged up from my archives of a Vote Compass I completed during the 2017 provincial election. I think it shows that not only is the Vote Compass a black box, but the apparently-simply graphic it outputs is not without its own political bias:

Though I have learned quite a bit (I think) in the last three years about reconciliation, have been challenged by BLM and related Canadian protests, and emboldened perhaps by the Climate Strikes, I don’t think my political ideas and ideals have shifted significantly since 2017. My position slightly left/progressive of the “center” of the NDP is probably as true now as then. But notice the axes around which the three parties have been aligned have shifted dramatically.

In the (upper) 2020 Compass, the NDP have been placed at the economic centre, when in 2017 (lower) they were well left of it – almost half way to the edge of the grid. The Liberals have in 3 years been pushed further right of the “centre”. Did the parties move, or the axes? Are these axes meant to represent some societal or political consensus? If not, then what are they?

The social axis is even more interesting. The Liberals are shown not shifting relative to this axis (which is arguable when comparing Christy Clark to Andrew Wilkinson in their ability to keep Laurie Throness quiet), where both the NDP and the Greens have been shifted markedly away from the “progressive” end of the spectrum towards the centre. I was bothered by where the Andrew Weaver Greens were placed on the 2017 grid, especially relative to the NDP because their policy and messaging simply did not reflect that, but the 2020 Greens under Furstenau have clearly staked out a more progressive agenda which simply isn’t reflected in this graphic.

The shift in Party poles vs. axes between the 2017 and 2020 CBC Vote Compass.

Put it all together, and the Vote Compass is showing a shift of all parties and me, or of the centre. Is this real? Is this an artifact of public opinion, of party policy shifts, of media bias, or just a freak of an algorithm?

Yes, I am reading too much into this. But political communications is all about reading too much into things. Now go vote.

Magic Bus

Here’s my get out and vote blog post, which often turns into a do more than vote blog post.

I heard from a few different sources this year a metaphor of democracy being like a bus, not a limo service. A bus doesn’t pick you up at your door, take the fastest route, and drop you at your destination. It can’t, because everyone else in your community needs the bus as well. The way public transit works is you find the bus that does the best job of getting you from where you are to near where you want to be, and take that ride. So it is with politics. It would be very rare for any party to promise 100% of what you want this or any election. It can’t, because government is a complicated thing with countless competing priorities, and governance is managing the balance between those priorities. Promising you everything means they will fail to deliver anything. You need to find the party (or candidate) that is going as close to the direction you want to go, and get on that bus. Because democracy is a collective action, even while voting is a solitary one.

I like that metaphor simile. But I want to expand on it, as is my wont.

When you rely on Transit, you don’t just jump on the first bus that comes along, or the bus your dad used to ride. If you don’t know what direction you want to go, it is tempting to hop on the shiniest bus. Without knowing the routes, however, you may be getting on a bus that suddenly turns down a strange road and leaves you lost in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. Spend a few minutes looking at platforms (they are all available on line), look at a few candidates, see what hey have to say and what their resumes tell you about their priorities. Ask your friends who they support and why. Doing your research beforehand is a really important part of the voting process, and increases the chances you will be satisfied with your choice, win or lose.

That said, voting is only the first part. Public Transportation is public, because it belongs to us. So does our democracy. We have the ability, and I would argue the responsibility, to assure the routes available meet our needs. We need to engage in our democracy even when the election is not on to assure the direction the parties go reflect where we want to go.

That means holding elected officials to account and staying informed on their progress. It also means providing positive and critical feedback to the elected officials you support and their parties, be they in Government or Opposition. If you have time, get involved in that party you supported, plop down your $10 to join the party and help them make decisions about their policy direction. Help them select candidates. If you like Party X but don’t like their position on Y, you need to let them know. The best way to change their policy on Y – the best way to get the bus route moved closer to your destination – is to be an engaged member outside of the election cycle.

Finally, one of the unique things visitors note about Vancouver is our tendency to thank the bus driver as we disembark. I think it is important that we thank the people who make our democracy work. The candidates who put their ideas to the public test, and put themselves into the public light. I know it is not an easy thing to do, the praise is fleeting and the criticism is internalized. It is a sacrifice that needs to be acknowledged and appreciated. There are also teams of volunteers who make the campaigns run, from lawn sign installers to phone callers to pamphlet stuffers to financial agents. Our democracy wouldn’t run without them, but we rarely note their efforts. Thanks, everyone.

So get out and vote, but also do the rest of the work to be a good transit rider, and a good citizen. We are all on the bus together, so mask up, be informed, be engaged, and be thankful.