Taxes 2020

I am returning to a common theme here in the blog, because I like to look at data, and have recently had a resurgence of folks suggesting to me that New Westminster is the highest taxed city in Christendom. Well, maybe only in British Columbia. Recently, I noticed a Councilor in another municipality puffing his own tires about how prudent the tax regime in his City was by calling out New Westminster as specifically worse tax & spendthrifts. Which allotted me the excuse for the following subtweet:

That the City that Councillor had higher taxes than New West by the measure in the graph was left unsaid, as were his name and that of his community, because I really don’t think it is a competition. Moreover, the problem with graphs like above is that they are one simplified analysis, and as I have tried to demonstrate in many blog posts like this over the years (Here with 2019 numbers, Here from 2015, Here where I compared taxes and utility rates, etc, etc. ) there are various ways to compare property taxes between Cities, and any comparison is useless without context. Some more useless than others.

Cities primarily provide services to people. This is why we generally rank the “size” of a City by population, not by square kilometers. The cost of providing services also most closely tracks with population. So when we talk about tax burden, certainly in the sense that our nameless Councillor was talking about it, we are talking about how much you pay for taxes as a resident of the City, which is easily measured by the taxes collected per capita:

The BC Government collects these stats every year, and report out on “tax burden” on a spreadsheet they call Schedule 707. You can read it here. The table above was generated by dividing the 2019 “Total Municipal Taxes” from each City by the population (2018 estimate, because that is what is on the Schedule). New West collected just under $84M in taxes a population of just over 76,000 people, for a per capita tax of $1093. This puts us right in the middle of Lower Mainland municipalities. The average of these per capita numbers is $1123 (New West is a little lower), but the average tax burden is actually $1042 (New West is a little higher).  This makes sense based on the different ways you can calculate the average, but fair to say New West is pretty firmly in the middle of the region.

This first chart compares all municipal taxes, though, and residential property tax – that collected from homeowners and landlords of rental properties – is only a portion of this. We also collect taxes from businesses and industries and utilities and such. Fortunately, Schedule 707 also break taxes down by property class. New Westminster collected just under $52M in residential taxes from those 76,000 residents, which works out to $675 per capita:

As you can see, that puts New Westminster just below average across the region. You will also note the municipalities that leap to the left side of the graph tend to be residential communities with limited commercial and industrial properties. Without those businesses to prop up the expense of the running the City, residential property owners have to pay more. Here is the commercial and industrial taxes collected per capita in 2019:

In this red is “Major Industry” like the Kruger paper plant or big industrial areas like Annacis and Mitchell Islands. Purple is “light industry” like the type of warehouses you drive by on the Mary Hill Bypass or in Port Kells. Green is “commercial”, which means retail, restaurants, malls and office buildings.

As you can see the distribution of this type of development is unequal across the region. Vancouver is the commercial centre of the region, and has oodles of office and retail space downtown and along the Broadway corridor. Delta has Annacis Island and the River Road corridor, that huge industrial reservoir allows them to keep their residential taxes low. As a proportion of property tax collected, New Westminster gets about 38% of its tax revenue from commercial and industrial properties and 62% from residential, which again puts it somewhere in the middle:

Unfortunately, commercial and industrial taxes are much harder to compare across the region. “Per Capita”, as I have used here, feels wrong. Raw numbers or rates are hard to compare because the value of commercial real estate in Downtown Vancouver is very different then the same office space in Langley, with New West somewhere in the middle. The pressures, costs, and relative utility of industrial land varies even more widely across the region. I will try to dig more into that in a follow-up post, because there are a few ways to look at business taxes in New West that make it look like we may be a little out of the ordinary.

But when ti comes to residential taxes, it is clear that New West is neither high or low taxed relative to the rest of the region. And there is a good case to be made that the Lower Mainland of BC has among the lowest residential property taxes in North America. But I’ll let someone else make that case.

June 22 Public Hearing

This week we had our first adventure with an on-line Public Hearing and Opportunity to be Heard. It was not without its challenges. Though it appeared that staff had made the systems necessary work, and our “trial run” last week fairly uneventful, we are relying on members of the general public to manage their own interface and web technology during what is probably an unusual situation for many, so there were a few glitches. People were afforded the ability to write or e-mail Council with input prior to the meeting, or to use web videoconferencing through a web browser, or phone in during the meeting. Some did more than one of these.

First off, the Public Hearing:

Zoning Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bylaw No. 8172, 2020
This first Public Hearing is to review multiple relatively minor changes to the language of our Zoning Bylaws. It updated some language and made numerous textural changes to make things more consistent internally and with City policies. Not surprisingly, we had no written submissions and no speakers to this item.

Council moved to give this Bylaw Third Reading and Adoption.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (909 First Street) No. 8188, 2020
This project will have four townhouse style homes replace a single family home on a largish lot in Glenbrooke North. This represents the type of moderate infill density that was envisioned in our OCP. Though it is not the transit-densest neighbourhood in town, there are a lot of walkable services nearby and will provide more housing options in a very family-friendly neighbourhood.

This went through a public open house and Residents Association meeting, and generally received favourable comments. There were a few concerns raised about traffic and parking. However, it was noted that this will be a 4-unit development replacing a duplex with basement suites, so the actual increase in density (and car space needed) is marginal.

We received 8 written submissions (mostly in favour) and a few people took part in the public hearing, raising concerns about parking and traffic for the most part.

Council moved to support giving the Rezoning Bylaw Third Reading.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (45 East Eighth Avenue) No. 8189, 2020
This is another project that will replace a single family home with townhouses to provide more “missing middle” housing with relatively gentle infill, this time in the Massey Victory Heights neigbourhood. It went to a public open house and residents’ association meeting and appeared to generate favourable comments. We had a few speakers, mostly related ot the development (the owner and Architect) and one neighbor concerned about parking and traffic.

Council moved to approve Third reading of the rezoning.


We then went into an Opportunity to be Heard:

Inter-Municipal TNS (Ride Hailing) Business Licence Scheme Bylaw No.
8186, 2020

This Bylaw would sign New Westminster onto the larger inter-municipal business licensing scheme for ride hailing in the Lower Mainland. This doesn’t really equal “approving” ride hailing, as the provincial government hasn’t really given us that option, but instead it allows us to take part in a regional regulatory regime that will give us some control over how it operates, and provide us some access to the valuable data collected by the industry to help us manage the transportation regime in our community more effectively.

We had two people contact us, one a small operator in the industry, and one raising some concerns about what ride hailing means for equity in our community.

I have already expressed my concerns about the model of ride hailing as being offered by large venture-capital supported multinational corporations that exploit their employees, increase GHG emissions in our communities, make our neighbourhood streets less safe and undermine sustainable transportation modes that are the foundation of our regional planning principles. I also have concerns about climate impacts and accessibility impacts, but recognize that we as local governments have limited regulatory authority to address those concerns.

My support for this Inter-Municipal business license is in recognition that if we are to have any regulatory control over this potentially damaging technology, it will be through business licensing. It is important that we collect and interpret this data, and having business licensing is a way to get that data. This is not the end of the story, but the beginning, and it is upon us to work with our neighboring communities to stay aware of the impacts or ride hailing – positive and negative – and work to the limit of our licensing authority to address the negative impacts, as the provincial government seems to be taking a hands-off approach.

Council voted to approve this Bylaw.


We had a few more Bylaws to adopt this meeting:

Zoning Amendment (Stage 1 – Sustainable Transportation) Bylaw No. 8184, 2020
Bylaw Notice Enforcement Amendment Bylaw No. 8168, 2020 and
Municipal Ticket Information Amendment Bylaw No. 8169, 2020
As discussed in the June 1 meeting, we updated some of our zoning requirements that support sustainable transportation. These bylaw changes are now adopted by Council.

Zoning Amendment (Sidewalk/Street Patios and Parklets) Bylaw No. 8206, 2020
As discussed last meeting, we are doing more to support patios in the City, and we have now adopted the bylaw.

Zoning Amendment Bylaw (2223 Ninth Avenue) No. 8180, 2020
This single family house with a laneway house development was given a Public Hearing back in February, and now that all the details have been hammered out, we can adopt the Bylaw.

Feedback

I like to complain as much as the next guy. However, I do try to keep it constructive and useful. I recently send a complaint to TransLink via a short Twitter thread, photos and all. The very pleasant person on the other side of the anonymous @TransLink twitter account replied that they noted the concern, and asked that I follow up with the on-line TransLink feedback form. I was admittedly slow to do this, in part because the feedback form is limited to 2,000 characters (I can’t sing Happy Birthday in less than 2,000 characters) and I thought the issue really needed the photos I took to highlight my concern. So, I sent them a TL;dnr complaint to the suggestion box and added a link to this post, where I expand on my Twitter thread and add the photos that I think tell the story.


Hello.

I had a pleasant conversation through Twitter (yes, that is possible) with your social media staff last month, and they recommended I send this concern directly to this e-mail, so here we are, I finally got my rant together.

There is a bus stop on Westminster Highway right across the street from the Hamilton Transit Centre. Stop #59555 I think. The bus stop is on a (painted) bike lane. Not a perfect design, but sometimes you need to make due as there are lot of challenges for road space and curb space in the City. A bus stopping for a few seconds to pick up or drop off customers is a minor hassle for someone using the bike lane, and I think supporting transit users is really important for all cyclists – we active transportation users are all in this together!

Though it is not optimal in design, this is kind of an important bike lane. That area of Queensborough/Hamilton is a bit of a pinch point with the freeway jammed through it, and the route along Westminster Highway is really the only accessible, low-gradient and family-friendly route between the residential areas of Hamilton and the residential areas of Queensborough. It serves as an important connection for parks, shopping, the child care centre, and other travel. There really isn’t another way around here (except a ridiculous, really high, steep, and narrow pedestrian overpass a little way to the South, which no cycle should ever be on, and which doesn’t connect to anything, and is a prime example of why MOTI should not be trusted to build anything in an urban area, but I digress).

Now, the problem with Stop #59555 is that it has increasingly been used as place to store buses. It seems there is always one or two buses staged there, sometimes shut off with no drivers. I realize the 410 route often has delay/deadheading issues, but I also assume this is a spot for shift changes or other reasons bus are stored here. I have cycle commuted on this route for years, and I do not recall buses staging here prior to the opening of the Transit Centre. So now, instead of people on bikes waiting a few seconds for the bus to pick up or drop off, we need to travel around the bus.

A >2m-wide bus parked in a <2m painted bike lane means cyclists wishing to pass by must enter the driving lane of a road with the name “Highway”, and one with a significant portion of truck traffic. For experienced cyclists like myself, that is merely a bothersome decrease in my safety as I signal and take the lane and hope drivers respect my space (no doubt irritating a small number of them, pushing them towards writing their own long impotent screeds on the Vancouver Sun Facebook page about scofflaw cyclists not staying in their lane). But for other users it creates a serious barrier. Here is what I happened upon while riding along that route a few weeks ago, which launched this specific impotent screed:

As someone who cares about active transportation, as someone who proudly extols the virtues of TransLink as one of the greatest urban transit systems in North America, as someone elected to advocate for the safety and comfort of active transportation users in my community, all I want is for this mother to feel comfortable taking her daughter for a bike ride. I want the daughter to grow up confident and free and empowered by her bicycle. I want mom and daughter to be safe. The bikeway here is not optimal, but Translink’s operational choice here is making it markedly less safe every day. I mean, what is she supposed to do here? What message are we sending?

So please, see if you can change this operational practice, hopefully this summer, until a proper engineered work-around (a pull-out for the bus, or a bike lane routed behind the bus stop) can be implemented. If you need help from the City to make that happen, or if there is someone else I need to call, please let me know. Don’t do it for me, the “experienced rider” who doesn’t mind irritating the occasional driver if road engineering forces me into that choice. Do it for this family, for this mom trying to teach her daughter how to navigate her community safely, for this youth discovering one of the greatest tools for empowerment and freedom ever invented – riding a bicycle.

Thanks.

a follow-up

In my last post, I tried to give some data on how policing works in BC and New Westminster, and I tried to do so without opining, recognizing that my own biases and opinions probably sneak in all over everything I write.

There was one asterisked statement in that post I wanted to follow up on, because it relied on a more detailed reading of the Police Act, and that post was long enough without this extra 1,000-word digression. However, in the day or two since I started sketching out that previous post, there has been much news, including the Mayor of Vancouver saying he really can’t do much about policing costs, some in the chattering class suggesting that was artless dodging, and the Solicitor General and Premier saying the Police Act is due for an update. All of the sudden, that asterisked point became the center of debate, so I will try to unpack a bit here.

Again, by means of caveat: I am not a lawyer or specialist in interpreting legal documents. I am not on the Police Board, so operating under the Police Act is not part of my day-to-day. I may get details wrong here, and please correct me if I do.

The Police Act says that a municipality over 5,000 residents must pay for policing. At first blush, that means City Council is responsible for approving the Police Budget (both operational and their capital requests) as part of their annual budget work, and we do that. However, that is not the entire story.

Section 15 of the Police Act says:

…a municipality …must bear the expenses necessary to generally maintain law and order in the municipality and must provide, in accordance with this Act, the regulations and the director’s standards, policing and law enforcement in the municipality with a police force or police department of sufficient numbers to adequately enforce municipal bylaws, the criminal law and the laws of British Columbia, and to maintain law and order in the municipality, adequate accommodation, equipment and supplies for the operations of and use by the police force or police department

This makes clear that the Provincial Government has ultimate authority to determine the level to which police are funded in BC. Section 17 of the Act follows up by saying the Director of Police Services (a Provincial Government employee appointed by the Solicitor General, see Section 39 of the Police Act) must notify the City they are in breach and direct them to fix it. If they fail to do so, the Solicitor General can fix it, and send the municipality the bill.

Section 26 also puts policing costs at the foot of the Police Board:

Subject to a collective agreement as defined in the Labour Relations Code, the chief constable and every constable and employee of a municipal police department must be employees of the municipal police board, provided with the accommodation, equipment and supplies the municipal police board considers necessary for his or her duties and functions, and paid the remuneration the municipal police board determines.

Then Section 27 lays out the slightly-convoluted response if the Council refuses to pay for something the Police Board asks. The Board or Council may appeal to the Director (that Provincial government employee), who determines “whether the item or amount should be included in the budget”, and reports back, cc’ing the Solicitor General. If ordered so, the Council must include the item in its budget, or be in violation of the Police Act. Naturally, a lot rides on that should above, but ultimately, the Solicitor General holds all the cards in this dispute.

The grey ares in the middle of all this is the determination of what “sufficient numbers” and “adequate” are in the sections above. How does one measure if the level of service planned by the Police Board and funded by the Council is sufficient? Or more to the point, how would one know when it is insufficient?

This brings us to Regulations, which are pieces of Legislation that exist under Acts. Again, not a lawyer here, but Acts are high level documents enacted by the Legislature that set out general principles and duties, establishing the will of the Government. Regulations are subordinate to and empowered by Acts, but include a lot of the fuzzy details that often need adjustment without opening up the entire big Act. A probably-wrong but simplified example: an Act would say “driving above a speed limit is illegal”, where the subordinate Regulation would say “Speed limits on urban roads is 50km/h unless otherwise designated”.

In Section 74, the Police Act gives the “Lieutenant Governor in Council” (a fancy way to say, the government of the day) the power to create Regulations on various aspects of the Act, including:

prescribing the minimum salary or other remuneration and allowances to be paid to members of police forces, police departments, designated policing units or designated law enforcement units” and “prescribing the minimum number of members of police forces, police departments and designated policing units that are to be employed on a basis of population, area or property assessment, on any combination of them, or on another basis

To the best of my knowledge, these regulations do not actually exist (a list of regulations that do exist under the Police Act is available here). Police staff numbers and police remuneration are determined by the Board, the latter approved by the Council, and Regulations just don’t come into it. There is, however, a legal ability for the provincial government to create such regulations if needed to clarify the funding required for “adequate” policing. Short those regulations, if a dispute occurred and persisted, it would likely end up in the Courts and a judge would decide, though my (unskilled) reading of the Act suggests it would be the Police Board whose opinion carries the most weight.

In in my time on Council in New Westminster, there has never been a significant conflict between the Board and Council on the budget. Council has, on several occasions, reviewed budget augmentation requests made by the Police as part of our annual budgeting process and sent some back for review. This type of negotiation has always resulted in agreed-upon operational budget and Capital requests, much like in other departments in the City from Engineering to Parks.

Yes, a Municipal Council could push back hard against a Police budget and significantly reduce it. Yes, the Police Board could appeal to the provincial government if they feel this reduction would not allow them to discharge their duty under the Police Act to “enforce municipal bylaws, the criminal law and the laws of British Columbia; maintain law and order in the municipality; and prevent crime”. Then the ball would firmly be in the provincial government’s court to determine the path forward – accept that Council’s reductions or order the Council to pay. No doubt, Politics would ensue.

Where we are at

When I see voices being raised here in New Westminster and across North America to call attention to inequity society, most prominently the unjust policing of Black and Indigenous people, I struggle to find the place where my words are important. For the most part, they aren’t. As I have spent my life being a tacit beneficiary of this injustice, my lived experience is not something anyone needs to hear from right now. There are better voices to listen to now on this topic. For now, my admittedly inadequate response is to say I am listening, and I am having conversations with people in the community to better understand what kind of concrete actions I can take in my elected role or support others doing to start addressing the systemic change we need to see. I appreciate the correspondence (even the form letters!) I have received, and am struggling to be timely in my replies, but I’m working on it.

I have often tried to use this blog to unpack arcane bits of municipal government. Maybe my usefulness here is in outlining the lay of the land. Not as call for action, an excuse for a lack of action, or a retort against calls for radical change, but more to inform and empower those who would want to call on government to take concrete actions, and those who have concerns about those calls. I think data can help ideas find better traction in local government, in provincial government, and in police forces. So the following is intentionally short on opinion, but I hope this provides local context to the conversations happening across North America right now.


New Westminster has a Municipal police force. Where many communities in British Columbia contract out local policing to the RCMP, here in New Westminster the police are independent. The legislation that empowers them to act as a law enforcement body is the provincial Police Act, which requires that a Municipality provide policing, whether through a stand-alone police force or contracting the RCMP. It also requires that a non-RCMP municipality establishes a Police Board to oversee that policing.

The New Westminster Police Board is (as regulated by the Police Act) chaired by the Mayor of the City, and one of the positions on the Police board can be appointed by the City Council (city councilors are strictly forbidden from serving on the Police Board). The five other members of the Board are appointed by the provincial government via the Solicitor General’s office. So there is a little bit of overlap of jurisdictions, but it is clear the Police do not answer to City Council, for good separation-of-powers reasons. The Police Board oversees (but doesn’t direct) operations, provides guidance on strategic planning, and even hires the Chief constable. These Board members are, notably, unpaid volunteers, and tenure is limited to two three-year terms.

In requiring a municipal government to provide policing, the Police Act requires that a City Council approve a policing budget. Without digging too deep into the current rhetoric, only the provincial government (through the Police Act) or the Police Board can reform the police; while only the City Council can defund them*. Of course, more complicated responses to the complex issues raised by the current public discourse would rely on some sort of concerted action between all three bodies. In short, the systems are structured such that fundamental changes to the status quo will be hard to make, and it is challenging to think about where to start. But that is the challenge before us.

*within certain limits. See my follow-up blog post


I do want to talk about funding – because the part that is (mostly) under City Council control, and it is something that has become fodder for much of the recent discussion about policing in local government circles.

The intrepid CBC Local Government reporter and data geek Justin McElroy put some data together here comparing “protective services” spending across BC municipalities. As he notes, comparing across municipalities is difficult because not all are as transparent about how their spending is broken down. The one definitive source is the BC Government stats collected annually, but they report “protective services” as one category which lumps together Police and Fire. Looking at the 2018 data (the most recent available on-line), on average 25% of local government spending is on Protective Services. New Westminster is a little lower than that average at 23%.

(source: Schedule 402 2018)

This proportion varies widely across the province for many reasons. Victoria has high protective service costs at least partly because it is a small municipality in the middle of a large metro area with some special policing costs related to being the Provincial Capital. Salmo has a small volunteer fire department and limited policing provided by the RCMP, so their protective services costs are really low. There are also great variations on the denominator side of the equation, as different Municipalities have different utility costs and other levels of service in non-protective services. So, all that to say direct comparisons are complicated.

I can talk with a little more certainty about New Westminster’s spending on police services. If you look at our most recent on-line financial reporting here, you can check the 2020 Budget column to see what we plan to spend this fiscal year:

This is cut from page 19 of the pdf in the link above. This is the “Operational” part of the budget, which pays for day-to-day expenses like salaries, gas for police cars, electricity and paper clips. Utilities like sewers and electric are handled separately in the same report because the sources of those funds are different. In 2020 the City budgets to spend $136M on non-utility operations, and $31.6M of that is police operations. It is fair and accurate to say that 23% of our non-utility operational spending in the 2020 budget is on Police operations.

There is a second budget category the City uses to account for its “Capital” expenses. This covers all of the tangible objects the City has to buy that have a useful life span (i.e. are not consumables) but need maintenance or periodic replacement, like buildings, cars, roads, ice plants for arenas and lawnmowers. On pages 25 and 26  of that linked pdf above are the details of what we plan for Capital spending for the 5 years covering 2020-2024. It totals up to a substantial $275M, but if you take all the lines that are for Police services, you see $427,600 for police building repairs & renovations, $828,600 on general equipment and $2,085,000 on police vehicle renewal and repair for a total of $3.3M, which totaled up works out to a little more than 1% of our 5-year capital budget. Savings on equipment is relatively easy, but that is a small proportion of the city budget.

Finally, it is timely to discuss how the local police services budget has changed in the City. The City doesn’t archive old financial plans on the website, and the Provincial stats lump all “protective services” together. However, I do have copies of all of the annual budgets I have been asked to approve since I joined City Council in 2014, and can project forward to 2024 using the current 5-year financial plan (which are projections that may change). Here is what the Police Services portion of the general operations budget looks like over that time. It has remained around 22%-23% of the budget over that time, but is increasing at a slightly higher rate than overall budget:

We can talk about reasons why the police budget has changed over the years, and yes I have opinions, but maybe I’ll leave that for future discussions I am sure we will be having.

Pool Pause

One of the bigger items on the Agenda this week was the update on the Canada Games Pool replacement project. There were two items, and because of the size and scope of the project, there is significant public interest in the plans, so it is worth unpacking the decisions a bit.

The first big news is that the City was not successful in securing an Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program grant for the Project. This is pretty disappointing, as the City has spent 5 years developing a program around this grant process, and specifically designed aspects of the project to assure we had the best chance of receiving some funds. We did the hard public-consultation and program-design work to get a fundable program that met what we considered all of the possible criteria for the Community, Culture and Recreation category. Our application was submitted in January 2019, and we received notice more than a year later that we were not successful.

Exacerbating this disappointment is that projects for this Grant must be “shovel ready”. This means we needed to be ready to go, with a well-developed project, public buy-in, secured financing (ironically, you need to prove you don’t need the grant to get the grant), and all of the hoops jumped through to get ready to dig a hole… but you cannot yet be digging the hole. If you start digging, you are no longer eligible. I think our staff were pretty creative in getting shovel ready in time for grant application, but were still able to get some detail design and site preparation work done during the unexpectedly long waiting period. However, we clearly lost time in the wait, which is unfortunate.

The nature of the grant program is such that there is no clear explanation from the selection organization of why the project was not selected, except to say that there were significantly more applications than available grants for all of BC, and ours didn’t make the cut. There is another phase of ICIP launching in the fall of 2020, and we may be able to re-package parts of the project to apply for grants then. Also, as both the Province and Feds are signaling significant stimulus funding will be rolling out in the Fall as part of COVID recovery, we have some innovative aspects of the pool project that we think may be successful at getting some support. However, we need to recognize that these will be relatively small contributions, and the City of New Westminster is going to have to pay for most of this project on its own.

Last year, Council had some discussions about the financial plans around the pool, and decided that the larger “Enhanced” pool plan that some in the community were asking for was outside of our financial comfort zone unless we got a significant ICIP contribution. With this confirmation that those funds are not coming, we are taking the “Enhanced” pool off of the table. We are now concentrating on the two-tank (8-lane 50m pool model with a second recreation pool) plan that came out of our extensive community consultations and serves community needs, and is still significantly larger than the existing Canada Games Pool, but not the 10-Lane pool that some in the regional competitive swimming community would have liked to see built.

New Westminster is a City of 71,000 people in the centre of a Metro region with 2.5 Million people. There is a need for a refreshed swimming and recreation facility to serve our growing community, and we also have a myriad of other spending priorities and infrastructure that needs updating. I believe that building a facility for the regional competitive swimming community needed regional support. If we want to build a facility to host Provincials and inter-provincial competition, the senior government grants we applied for were the process available to us to fund that type of facility. Without those funds, we need to concentrate on addressing the pressing community need in a way that fits the financial capacity of our community.

With the detailed design decisions made, and the financing worked out, the next step in the process is to hire a construction company by issuing an “Invitation to Tender” to the construction market. We are ready to do that now, but it opens up a bunch of financial implications for the City, so Council decided to pause a few months before we take this big step.

This is not an easy decision, just as the decision to not build the larger pool is a difficult one. But both were made for similar reasons – concern about the impact on the City’s finances. I know political hay-makers love to cast this Council as spendthrifts because we like to do things that make our City stronger and more livable, but my experience in 5+ years on Council is that we are always cautious when projecting out future City finances, and are pretty risk adverse if we don’t fully understand cost implications.

This is the biggest single capital project the City has ever undertaken. We have been putting some money aside for a few years, but will still need to debt finance the bulk of this project. At the scale of this project, any risks can have a big impact on the City’s budget for years to come. Unfortunately, there is significant uncertainty in the City’s medium-term financial status due to the COVID crisis, and in the construction market due to supply chain concerns and disruption in global markets. For that reason, we are not taking the next step in sending this out for tender until at least the end of the summer, when we have a better handle on the financial status of the City, of the Province, and of the world economy, and the construction market will hopefully have a better handle on costs.

This is acting with an abundance of caution, as I think we have to when talking about an infrastructure investment this size and a financial crisis of this unprecedented nature. The news coming out of the Province and the Bank of Canada is generally positive about recovery, but still really uncertain. If better financial certainty puts us in a position to pull the trigger at the end of the summer, this delay will add only a couple of months to the final delivery date in 2023. However, if the local and/or global financial situation goes very badly in the next few months, we will be much more prepared to manage that as a City without a $100+ Million project weighing us down. Let’s hope it is the former, and we are able to go to tender in the fall, but at this time a pause is the prudent, if disappointing, thing to do.

on Phase 2

There is a lot of stuff going on right now. There are stories local and international that are causing people alarm, confusion, and anxiety. I cannot tell if things are spinning faster now, or if we are all so apprehensive about our imminent release from social quarantine that the tension is making us hyper aware. There will be a reams of sociology research coming out of the time we are in, and the times to come over the next 6 months. Or 8 months. Or 12. Who knows, and maybe that we don’t know timelines is part of this. Or maybe its just me.

I get a lot of correspondence as an elected type, and like many of you have been spending a lot of time looking out through social media at the conversation in my community. I have been stepping out to shop, to exercise, to smell the flowers in a park. Talking to friends from 7 feet apart and stepping sideways to yield some sidewalk space. Wondering if I send the wrong signal when I tried to hold the door for someone, not at first recognizing that they didn’t want to walk past me. There is a common thread through all of this – anxiety. Or maybe nervousness is a better word, and anxiety best reserved for when it becomes disproportionate and disabling, Even then how are we to know what level of discomfort is “disproportionate” right now?

Last year, the City of New West was reviewing applications for cannabis retail stores. These were, nominally, just regular rezoning applications to add another legal use to existing retail locations. We had many people write to us and come to the Public Hearing expressing fear and concern about the impact of these stores on their neighbourhood, their community, and their children. With cannabis made legal and its use already ubiquitous in our community, it was hard to understand where this seemingly disproportionate anxiety was coming from.

A wise colleague put this into context for me. Government at every level, police, schools, churches, and the media, had spent most of the last century telling the public that cannabis was a terrible threat. Reefer Madness, gateway drug, a surefire way for your child to throw their life away. We invested millions in scaring the population about this menace, and incarcerating people for using or trading in it. Then one day, government declared it legal and all fine now, with very little fanfare, and (most importantly) limited education about the reality of its health impacts. They frankly never said “we were wrong”, or if they weren’t wrong, why those fears they transmitted are now not important. What right do we have now to act surprised that everyone didn’t just say OK when that shift happened? We need to recognize that the anxiety came from a place not of the anxious person’s making. We must be compassionate about the impact it is having on them while working on re-doing the public education about this issue.

I feel that the same applies right now as people start to transition out of lockdown, and into whatever modes come next. Except it is on a compressed timeline, and a threat more imminent. Parents are understandably unsure about sending their kids to school, some are nervous about playgrounds opening while others are chagrined that we are not moving faster to open them up. Some feel inconvenienced by the lineups and physical distancing requirements at the Farmers’ Market, others are comforted to see that they can buy food with crowding managed for safety, still others feel the Farmers’ Market is not doing enough to satisfy their personal comfort.

It’s not necessarily because people don’t trust guidance from government or public health officials. Though some may feel that way, the people of BC have demonstrated over the last 4 months incredible faith in the leadership guiding us through this, and faith in their community. However, as that guidance changes, people need time to interpret and adapt to that change. Very few people alive have been through anything like this before, and we are all (experts and lay people) making this up as we go along, doing the best we can. We are all taking different paths through this crisis, some are more vulnerable, some feel more vulnerable. As this is a crisis that has required collective action, our vulnerability and sense of vulnerability are impacted by the actions of others as much as our own action.

So all this to say what Dr. Henry said eloquently in so few words: “Be calm, be kind, be safe

As we transition to re-opening, try to do so with other people’s anxiety in mind. It may not be rational to you, but that is a sign to listen, not to dismiss. We need to be kind to each other and recognize their path is different than our own. Before we criticize others for attending events, or refusing to attend events, before we judge decisions other parents make about how their children interact or play in the weeks ahead, before we mask-shame someone or question their picnic habits, use kindness to inform your view.

And be kind to yourself. It is okay to feel uncomfortable or unsure. We are all making this up as we go along, we are all doing our best, and we are all wondering if it is enough. BC has done a great job up to now, potentially thousands of lives have been saved, and we did it by working together. Let’s keep that collective spirit, keep thinking of each other.

Streets for People

I had a motion on the Council Agenda on Monday, which I said I would write about later. First the motion in full, then the rant:

Whereas the City of New Westminster established a Bold Step target to re-allocate 10% of automobile-only space toward sustainable transportation and/or public gathering use by 2030; and
Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant shifts in the use of public space, and “physical distancing” directives exposed the critical need for greater and more accessible pedestrian, active transportation, and public gathering space in the City; and

Whereas the recovery phase of the City’s pandemic response will put tremendous pressure on the City to address these inequities in public space, to assure that the freedom to move about and be active in public spaces not lost, and that our commercial districts are supported in finding creative ways to activate sidewalk and road space to excite customer support; and

Whereas urban areas around the world are currently demonstrating a commitment to reclaiming roads by rapidly converting automobile-only space to more equitable uses that better support neighborhood livability, commercial district viability, community resiliency, and public safety during the crisis and into post-Pandemic times;

Therefore be it resolved that:
The City of New Westminster move quickly in 2020 to expand road re-allocation toward pedestrian, cyclist, and public gathering space, using temporary measures where necessary with a mind towards more permanent solutions that can be applied after the period of crisis has passed;

And be it further resolved that:
The Transportation Task Force make rapid reallocation of road space a priority work item, are empowered to immediately apply temporary measures in 2020, and accelerate the timeline towards the 10% space reallocation goal set out in Bold Step 7 of the City’s Climate Action Plan.

In a rapidly growing city, the need for our streets to be public spaces where people can walk, shop, even recreate – as opposed to merely roads for the purpose of automobile throughput – has never been more clear. Intrinsically, we knew this all along. Every time we have opened up space for people to use at a human scale, people show up and take advantage of that space. When that space is lost again, we feel the loss. Yes, I’m talking street festivals and parades, but I’m also talking about the temporary closure of the east part of Front Street that brought people to use that space creatively for a summer, and the small calmed or reclaimed areas like the Front Street Mews and Belmont, or the pedestrian space reclaimed on McInnes.

Along comes a pandemic, and all of the sudden commuter traffic has reduced, and people are using space differently. People have shifted to walking more, there are noticeably more youth and families out on bikes, and the way we shop and assemble and queue use transit has changed. With people spending more time working at home or (alas) unemployed, there are more people outside using public spaces. Gathered in parks in small virtual pods of a few people, spread across the space. People want to be outside, but people are wary of being too close or crowded in public space. The only solution to this math is: more public space.

The City has reacted in some rapid ways to support these changes in the transportation realm. The report we received in the May 11 Council package outlines much of this: fixing the pinch point on the Central Valley Greenway at the north end of East Columbia, asking people to use the Quayside esplanade differently, making more space for safer use of the McInnes Overpass. And the obvious happened: every time we have opened up space for people to use at a human scale, people show up and take advantage of that space.

At the motion says, New Westminster has already set a goal to re-allocate 10% of road space by 2030 as one of our Bold Steps towards Climate Action. In light of current events and the radical change in the use of public space we are already seeing, the 2030 timeline no longer feels bold. In a city with as much road and as much pressing need for public space right now, we need to act faster.

And we are no alone in this, Cities from Vancouver to Montreal to London to Seattle have shifted the use of street space to make pedestrians, cyclists, and other street users more comfortable and safer.

New Westminster has a lot of road space, an excess of road space in many ways. We can demonstrate regional and national leadership not by changing our plans, but by simply re-setting the timeline for this work – the immediate shift of road space by temporary measures – paint, no post barriers, planters, delineators, and bollards. We can aggressively do this in the summer of 2020, with a mind to making these re-allocations permanent as capital budget and recovery allow.

My motion calls on us to do the things outlined in the Staff report, and more, and much more rapidly. Additionally, as much as I appreciate the great work transportation staff have done so far, I want us to also think about how we take this work out of the transportation realm, and expand it to thinking more holistically about how we can re-allocate space to support our business districts, support the arts community, support people finding new ways to connect socially while distancing physically, how the re-use of public space will be a keystone to the recovery from this crisis.

The summer of 2020 is going to be different. And coming out of the Pandemic, there will be transformations in how we live in our City. If we are bold and brave now, we can shape those transformations towards the more people-focused, more equitable, and more sustainable community we envisioned in our long-term planning. Like so many other needs in the community, the COVID-19 crisis did not create this need, but it did demonstrate the urgency of the need, and provides the opportunity for accelerated action to address the need that was always there.

I want this motion to be the start of a conversation – but getting mired in debate about priotization and compromises is the biggest risk to us actually getting change during this critical time. I will be talking out a lot in the weeks ahead about this, and I want to hear form the community about the visionary changes you want to see in your community, in your neighbourhood, on your street.

I want to see rapid deployment of greenway treatments to finally address some of the gaps. I want to see expansion of sidewalks into car storage spaces so that people have comfortable space to walk in our commercial areas, and so our commercial businesses can be supported as they re-open by taking patios or merchandizing areas out on to the sidewalk. I want to see small chunks of our local streets closed to traffic and converted to active use for neighbourhoods that are going to be itching for social connection during a summer with no festivals. I want every student to have a safe route to walk or roll to school. I want us to stop laying pavement expanses on parts of roads that don’t facilitate safe speeds or safe crossing. And I’ll be going on at length about these things…

I wrapped my little speech at Council by quoting Gordon Price – the former Director of the City Program at SFU and City Councillor for the City of Vancouver:

Reallocation as a health response, a climate-emergency response, a neighbourhood planning response, and an active-transportation response – all of the above at a time when the difficult-to-do has become the necessary-to-do.

Because it is time, because it will make us a better City, let’s do this.

#SaveTransit

There is a lot of bad news right now. Though we have reasons to be optimistic that BC will beat the curve, we cannot and should not ignore the fact people are suffering and people are dying. The disease is clearly worse than the cure. At the same time, many aspects of the cure are also causing significant stress and harm, and as health care professionals and disease researchers struggle to reduce the impact of the disease, we need everyone to be diligent about managing social distancing protocols and their impacts.

Today, my biggest concern is the Transit system. And it was apropos that this was the Google Doodle today:

Yes, small businesses are suffering. Many are closing, some not returning. Yes, some people are having a hard time meeting rent or mortgage payments. Yes, those who have been marginalized in our society – the precariously housed, people with disabilities, people with addiction – will suffer the most. All three orders of government are working to address these issues. There are also a lot of people working in previously-undervalued jobs who are keeping our society together. Grocery clerks, institutional cleaning staff, food processing and supply chain workers, truck drivers, warehouse staff, general labourers in any of the dozens of industries that are still operating. Many of them are being paid much less than a living wage.

Every day, despite an 80% drop in ridership, more than 75,000 people a day rely on TransLink to get them to their work, to shopping, to their appointments, and to do the things that are keeping our society operating.

Today it became clear that TransLink is in trouble, and those rides may go away as soon as next month. TransLink is losing $75M a month, and it will simply run out of cash to pay the salaries and the gas and electricity to run the system unless they get some kind of relief very soon. Unfortunately neither the provincial or federal governments have yet stepped up to provide that emergency relief, and are slow to commit that they will do anything.

The situation is dire for public transit systems across North America, but TransLink is somewhat unique. For a system its size, it relies more heavily (about 60%) on fare-box revenue than most in the North American context (most bus-based systems are around 40%). The other primary source of revenue – a regional gas tax – is also down more than 60%, while smaller revenue sources like the parking taxes are similarly vaporizing. Despite some ill-informed critique from anti-transit crusaders, TransLink runs a tight ship, so the reserves they are currently running on will not last much longer, and borrowing to run operations would be disastrous. The only option is an orderly deconstruction of the system unless emergency funds arrive.

The Federal Government has declared transit services essential, but they are not stepping up to fund it in an unprecedented emergency. Even the oft-absent US Federal government has committed $25Billion nation wide to keep transit systems afloat, including almost $500M for Sound Transit in Seattle, a system much smaller than we have in Greater Vancouver. TransLink is similarly not eligible for the Federal Wage Subsidy Program that is allowing Air Canada and WestJet to keep employees on the job. Senior Governments recognize that solvent airlines are an important part of keeping the economy rolling, and will be vital to recovery, but they have not yet demonstrated that they feel the same way about a public transit system like TransLink (which, I note, moved 5x the number of passengers last year than Air Canada).

This has come to a head right now, according to the Mayor’s Council, because a multi-modal integrated public transit system is a complicated thing. They are considering the need to scale back and reduce service right now, because a full scale-back will require several weeks. TransLink is currently burning through reserves, and will need to use those reserves to shut down and (eventually) to restart. They also note a re-start will take as long, or longer, than a shut down. In other words, if there is a serious deconstruction due to this liquidity crisis, it will take 4 to 8 weeks to get the system back up and running again once this is all over. And all this time, TransLink will not be earning enough revenue to fund the scale-up. It is crunch time.

It is bad enough to think that the people cleaning your hospitals, the people checking your groceries, the people putting your Amazon diaper order into the delivery truck, will not be able to get to work next month. It is worse to think that when this whole thing is over, the economic recovery will be dragged down by two months of not having a functional transit system in a major City. We cannot let this happen.

We need the Federal and Provincial Government to come to the Mayor’s Council immediately, and work out what value the transit system is providing to the community at this time, and the value it will bring to our eventual economic recovery, and they need to bring the money. Please connect with your MLA and your MP and spread the word that Transit is as vital to the operation of our City. Send them a short, respectful e-mail asking that they include public transit as one of the essential services that need their support right now.

Social distance.

Strange days continue.

Like many people, I am stuck in this strange, soul-defeating cycle of trying to avoid Social Media and the radio news broadcasts, but feeling compelled to always be checking in lest I miss something important, combined with a need to feel connected with my neighbours and friends. I am not someone who typically suffers with anxiety, but am starting to recognize signs of anxiety in my behavior. I can’t concentrate on work or other tasks that take more than 5 minutes, like writing a blog post.

We all need to step back in our boredom and find the separation from the hourly updates. Find space to do the things that let you escape. I’m going for a bike ride right after I finish this, or maybe ill dig in the Garden. Find your escape.

Of course, I am working in my “regular job” as best I can with the virtual desktop, and trying to keep up with events in New West. There are updates here, if you feel that compelling need to check in. We have made a Declaration of Local Emergency, which may free up some resources and gives our Emergency management structures some delegated authority that we hope they won’t have to exercise. Staff are constantly in touch with the Health Authority and senior governments to make sure recommended procedures and protocols are followed. Council will have a meeting on Monday afternoon to help make any policy decisions that need to be made, and to allocate any resources that need to be allocated.

I think it is important for folks to recognize we are all on new ground here. The City has a Pandemic Response Plan developed after the SARS crisis, but it has never been activated before, and staff have to learn its operational parts, and determine what is applicable to the current situation and what is not. There are subject matter experts at the Fraser Health Authority and the Centre for Disease Control whose advice we can lean on, and we share resources and knowledge with our cohort communities, but no-one on the City’s staff (or the staff of any City) are experts at this, and therefore everyone is exercising caution.

What makes a “crisis” different than regular times is the will to act. Local governments, for a variety of reasons, are often reluctant or slow to act for fear of unknown or possible negative consequences – Cities are risk-adverse by regulation and by culture. A crisis is a time when that needs to shift to a fear of not acting, and we will tolerate some unforeseen risk, be it financial or doing something wrong, because that risk is smaller and more ephemeral than the real current risk we can see around us. None of this changes the limits of how a City can act within its delegated authority.

This crisis is also a strange, long-lasting one, with implications up and down our economy that are still unknown. This is one of those times where the stark differences between a business and a government are relevant. Although there are some services we can (or have to) shut down, like fitness programming or the Library, there are many we simply cannot. The City needs police and fire protection. Building inspections and permitting need to operate to keep the community safe. Water needs to keep flowing and be tested, sewer garbage collection systems need to keep working. As pool, recreation programs, and community centres wind down, the City needs to address the needs of its employees, especially as program cancellations stretch into months.

There is another aspect of how Cities work that most don’t think of, and that is our general lack of liquidity. Because of the strict regulations around our financing, we do not generally have a lot of unrestricted cash lying around. Most of our Reserves are earmarked for specific purposes by law, and we cannot move that money round at will. We are required every year to run balanced budgets, and our ability to borrow money on the fly is limited. Do the math on our annual financial plan, and you can see that New West runs through about $16M a month, and half of our income arrives when property tax bills are paid – this time of the year we are at the lowest level of our cash reserves. We do not (to my understanding) have the legal authority to defer property tax payments, and if we did, it would not be long before we ran out of cash.

Of course, every homeowner in BC who is over the age of 55 or has a child under the age of 18 can receive a deferral for their property taxes from the BC Government for a remarkably low interest rate. If you qualify and are feeling financial stress this year at tax time, I recommend you take advantage of this offer. This does not address the issue with small business taxes, and I am not sure (we have not discussed at Council yet) what legal options we have available to us to assist there. I am hopeful that the senior levels of government that do enjoy significantly more budget liquidity than local governments will step in to help here, as I would love to see the millions who work in small businesses in communities across the country get prioritized over airlines and oil companies.

That said, we do have options and more flexibility in our utilities accounts, so there may be some options here to allow some deferrals. We are already following the lead of BC Hydro and doing this with electrical bills, but have (again) not discussed the rest of utilities at Council yet, but I suspect we will on Monday.

I have talked informally with some of my Council colleagues and the Mayor about the situation. With limited and mixed information and no formal meetings, we of course have not made any decisions. However, I can tell you everyone has expressed unprecedented concern, and are worried about what we can do. We know many of the more vulnerable members of our community simply don’t have the resilience or support network to feel secure right now. We know a lot of small businesses are closing, and many are worried about when, or even if, they will be able to reopen. We know people are worried and anxious. So are we. But our community is strong, we have shown great spirit in supporting each other in the past. Every one of us lives and shops and plays and shares in this community, we are all committed to doing what we can to support the community we love.

So all that to say, there are better sources for info than my blog, and you should go there if you need info. City-wise, go to the City’s website for local updates. The Provincial Government website will have updates, and will the Centre for Disease Control. Don’t panic, be informed, but watch your sources, because there is a lot of bad info on Social Media right now.

We will be holding a Council Meeting on Monday, when I will be expecting some updates from staff and a challenging conversation about what this means to our 2020 budget process. There will not be public delegations at the meeting, so though it will be a public meeting with limited public seating (to respect Social Distancing protocols), we are highly recommending people stay home and watch the live stream.

Other than that, take care of each other folks, and think about how you can help others while keeping yourself safe. There are people in our community who cannot stay at home, who don’t have access to supports they may need, for whom this disruption is life-threatening. Every one of us on our own journey through this, so be kind.