Vancouver city council has voted in favour of an additional 0.5-per-cent property-tax increase to help fund its response to the overdose crisis, which has overburdened first responders and killed more than 100 people in the city this year alone.
The additional tax, which would bring the total property-tax increase to 3.9 per cent, will generate an extra $3.5-million to go toward resources such as a new community policing centre, additional front-line staff and a new medic unit for the Downtown Eastside firehall.
Council voted 8-3 in favour, with Non-Partisan Association councillors Melissa De Genova, George Affleck and Elizabeth Ball opposing.
Read more: How a B.C. couple's struggle with addiction ended in deadly fentanyl overdoses
Councillor Kerry Jang said it was a no-brainer to cast his vote in support the tax.
"Our police, our fire, our folks that work in social services, asked for it," he said in an interview. "They are burnt out. They have never seen such an unprecedented number of overdoses and deaths in their career. They asked for help."
For a single-family house assessed at the median price of $1.4-million, a 3.4-per-cent property-tax increase would mean $72 more over 2016.
The additional tax would amount to an extra $4 or $5 for a condo and about $10 for a detached home.
The "fentanyl tax," as some have called it, will go into a contingency fund. Exact details of how it will be spent must then be determined at council.
In the first 10 months of this year, 622 people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. – already the highest annual death toll in 30 years of record-keeping. At least 124 of those deaths occurred in Vancouver.
Carfentanil, a large animal tranquilizer many times more potent than fentanyl, arrived in B.C. this fall and is suspected to be behind another recent surge in overdoses.
Ms. De Genova said there is no question the city is in crisis, but feels another tax, introduced with no consultation, is the wrong way to address it.
"Why aren't we looking at [city] contingency funds, or working with our federal partners?" she asked. "Shouldn't we be alleviating the stress of our firefighters by lobbying the provincial government for more ambulance services?"
Mr. Jang called that assessment "completely and utterly wrong," noting the requests of first responders such as firefighters and city employees fall squarely within civic responsibilities.
Robert Weeks, president of Vancouver Fire Fighters Local 18, said Tuesday the union is encouraged by the vote. About $1.8-million is currently earmarked for a new 24-hour medic unit, complete with three staffers, to be stationed at the Downtown Eastside firehall, which has had call volumes double in the past year.
"It will give us way more flexibility for our response capabilities," Mr. Weeks said. "We fundamentally believe this decision will save lives."
Also on Tuesday, the B.C. Nurses Union and the B.C. Professional Firefighters' Association held a joint news conference to speak of the physical and mental toll the overdose crisis has had on their members.
Gayle Duteil, president of the BCNU, spoke of nurses working 16-hour shifts and said emergency rooms need additional nursing staff "to avoid being thrown into chaos." However, there is a shortage of specialty nurses to fill such positions, she said.
Tim Gauthier, a registered nurse in the Downtown Eastside, said sites in the area have had no noticeable increase in supports despite a "huge influx in crises" that has caused workloads to increase "exponentially." He echoed the call for more resources, but noted even volunteers trained to administer naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, can go a long way in a time of crisis.
"With opiate overdose, a lot of it is basic CPR; it doesn't even have to be nurses in particular," he said. "At the Portland Hotel Society, they've managed more than 1,000 overdoses [this year] and only a tiny fraction of that had medical professionals helping."