Vancouver’s mayor is asking the province for up to $200-million as a relief grant to help the city survive while it is losing tens of millions of dollars in revenue and taking on new costs to help vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the city would lose $61-million if the current shutdown extends to the end of May and as much as $189-million if it goes until December.
If there is no help, that could mean closing down or severely limiting the hours of community facilities, once they’re allowed to be open, and even cutting back on some essential services such as police and fire.
“Our situation is extremely serious,” the mayor said Wednesday in what has become a weekly news conference at the city to talk about measures to deal with COVID-19. “We need help from the province. Right now, there is no program, no lifeline in place for local government.”
Mr. Stewart and all other Lower Mainland mayors wrote a joint letter to the province March 23 saying they needed help and asking for several remedies.
A major one was a request for direct grants from the province to cities, like the one Mr. Stewart asked for Wednesday.
The second was to have the province extend its property tax deferral program, which is now only available to seniors and a few others in special circumstances, to all residents and businesses.
That would mean anyone could put off their taxes indefinitely, while paying a small amount of interest, and the province would reimburse the city for any missing taxes.
So far the province, while holding regular telephone conference calls with mayors and Ministry of Municipal Affairs staff, has not committed to anything.
“The ministry is in continuous contact with local governments and understands the considerable financial challenges COVID-19 is posing,” said a statement from Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson. “We are working closely with our partners in the Ministry of Finance, the Municipal Finance Authority and the Union of B.C. Municipalities to help develop a path forward and hope to have more to say in the coming weeks.”
Not everyone is desperate for an immediate grant. Some smaller cities are more interested in the tax deferral solution.
“Our budget hasn’t been shredded. But the city’s financial health is completely tied to the financial well-being of residents,” said Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West, who signed the joint letter.
His council just cancelled the city’s modest 0.5-per-cent tax increase, which will only set it back by $300,000 in a $130-million budget. As well, he said, his city of about 60,000 is not reliant on parking revenue or casinos the way some other cities are.
Mr. West said the city can likely compensate for the relatively small amount lost because of recreation facility closings through using its reserves and some gains the city made last year in a big bump in development fees and a refinancing of some long-term debt at a lower cost.
The situation is very different in many larger cities.
In Vancouver, the city budgeted in 2020 to get $98-million from parking meters and parking bylaw fines, $68-million from community centre, library, golf course and theatre fees, $95-million from licensing and development fees, and $40-million from renting out buildings.
Vancouver has already laid off 1,500 people, mainly from closed recreation and community facilities, while Surrey has laid off 2,000.
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