Funds from the B.C. government’s $2-billion pandemic economic recovery plan will likely not start flowing to struggling businesses until the end of the year, a delay caused by the snap provincial election despite a commitment from Premier John Horgan that the money would be distributed quickly.
The Globe and Mail has learned the promised relief is unlikely to come until all the ballots in the Oct. 24 vote are counted, new ministers are appointed, applications for the programs are vetted and cheques are sent out. And if there is a change in government, it is not clear what will happen to the NDP’s plans.
“The final approval of projects and funds will not occur until a new cabinet is sworn in,” senior officials confirmed in an Oct. 1 document obtained by The Globe, related to one of the programs rolled out as part of the pandemic recovery plan, the $90-million Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program. Applications for that fund opened last week and will close on Oct. 29.
Another $50-million has been earmarked for the hard-hit tourism sector, but a task force is not set to report back until the end of the year, before that money will be disbursed.
Business leaders and operators say the election campaign has left the relief programs in limbo, while their debts mount and uncertainty about the future grows. They are still waiting for details of how they can access the different programs, and bureaucrats have made it clear that funds won’t flow until after a new government is sworn in later this year.
On Sept. 17, Mr. Horgan unveiled the details of the stimulus package, which includes $1.5-billion in spending, as well as an additional $660-million in tax relief for business. He said the Treasury Board approved “every page” of the plan.
“So many times, governments make an announcement, with money to follow,” Mr. Horgan said then. “The monies are approved, ratified, and they are going to be going out the door as quickly as possible.”
Four days later, Mr. Horgan called the election, a year earlier than provincial legislation requires and despite an agreement with the Green Party that there would not be an early election call. The Greens have been supporting the NDP in a minority parliament since 2017.
The B.C. Legislature unanimously approved the funds for the recovery package in March.
Because of the pandemic safety protocols adopted by Elections BC, the final count of ballots is not due until well after the Oct. 24 election. So far, a record-shattering half a million British Columbians have signed up to vote by mail and those ballots will not be counted until at least two weeks after election day.
Bridgitte Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, said businesses have been struggling since the pandemic paralyzed large segments of the economy last March. While some sectors have started to recover, she said many businesses are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
“We’re still very much in waiting mode, and since the beginning of the pandemic, our members have been saying what they need is support immediately, to help them to survive,” she said in an interview.
A key part of that package is a $300-million business recovery grant program for small and medium-sized businesses, but Ms. Anderson said it is still not clear how eligibility will be determined.
“These businesses are literally hanging on by a thread and waiting for funds to start flowing,” she said. “We’re not getting any answers.”
Ms. James, the Finance Minister, was not available for comment. In a written statement, Lori Wanamaker, deputy minister of finance, said the relief programs promised in September “are moving forward.”
Ms. Wanamaker said the criteria and mechanisms for developing the recovery grants are still being developed, while a separate fund for tourism will be managed by a new task force that is not set to report back until the end of the year.
“Work on other tourism initiatives is continuing and will be launched in the coming weeks,” her statement said.
Lyndie Hill, CEO of Hoodoo Adventures, a kayaking and cycling business in Penticton, said her business was down more than 50 per cent this year because of the pandemic, and with the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 coming, she is losing sleep over how to keep her operation above water.
“It could be the new year before anybody sees anything, and I think the concern is, that’s going to be far, far too late for everybody,” she said. Like many B.C. tourism operators, her company relies on the busy summer season to carry them through the year. She cut her staff down to the core, but her lease payments still must be paid whether she has income or not.
At the Myra Canyon Ranch near Kelowna, Rolf von Andrian is facing financial pressure as well. His herd of horses must be fed – they’ll eat $30,000 this year in hay alone – even when the future of the operation is uncertain.
“This year, all the international travellers disappeared. We had to refund tons of money, which almost killed us,” he said. Business was down just 25 per cent, thanks to locals who helped replace some of their traditional customers this summer. He and his wife have struggled to meet the criteria for federal aid, and he is hoping the provincial relief won’t be as difficult to access.
"The forecast is a bit challenging, he said. “Of course you ask yourself the question, after a while, is it worth doing it, because we can survive but there’s no profit.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.