British Columbia

With COVID-19 uncertainty, B.C. cities slash budgets ahead of May 15 deadline

With the May 15 deadline for municipal budgets fast approaching and the provincial government not providing any COVID-19 bailout — aside from making it easier for cities to borrow money — B.C. communities are being forced to decide which promised spending is important and which items can be delayed.

Funds dedicated for new priorities, like climate emergencies, are a common target for cutbacks

Members of the public bring signs to the District of North Vancouver's council chambers ahead of a vote to declare a climate emergency on July 8, 2018. (Meera Bains/CBC)

With the May 15 deadline for municipal budgets fast approaching and the provincial government not providing any COVID-19 bailout — aside from making it easier for cities to borrow money — B.C. communities are being forced to decide which promised spending is important and which items can be delayed.

"The reality is we're in a tremendously uncertain time," said West Vancouver Coun. Craig Cameron.

"Budgeting is an exercise in projecting what's going to happen over the next year to five years. And ... there's so many variables and there's such a range of potential outcomes, that it's extremely challenging to budget in that context."

On Monday, West Vancouver passed a budget that will see property taxes increase by an average of two per cent, as opposed to the 4.35 per cent originally proposed.

Some of that reduction comes from a hiring freeze and reduced spending on community services. But part of that reduction comes from eliminating a one per cent tax increase that would fund initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — part of West Vancouver's long-term plan after it declared a climate emergency.

"It's a tough balance," said Cameron, who put forward the climate emergency motion last year.  

"Climate change is still occurring and climate change is still a threat and we still have to respond accordingly. But we have a more pressing emergency before us right now. What we're trying to do is carve a middle ground."

Climate change cut in New West too 

Cameron said some measures would still be going ahead, including adding electric vehicle chargers at city hall.

But it's a similar story in New Westminster, where council passed a budget that reduced an original 4.9 per cent tax increase to 3.1 per cent.

Among the spending areas cut were several climate change initiatives, including money for greenways and cycling programs.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said she was worried about the precedent it could set.

"The way that covid is impacting our community is a bit of a lesson for the way that the climate crisis impacts our communities: it doesn't impact everybody equally. The people who are already vulnerable will be made even more precarious" she said, highlighting the impact of transit cuts.

"We are only 10 years away from the deadline of having to respond to the climate emergency ... that doesn't go away in light of this. So, it's quite concerning that the crisis isn't pushed to the back burner, when really we were already responding to it too slowly."

Arguably, the B.C. municipality with the most money committed to climate change initiatives is Vancouver — but council has delayed making any decisions on next year's budget until next week.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he's against lowering the seven per cent tax increase council passed in its original budget last December. 

"I think that would be a mistake," he said, arguing that Vancouver has different responsibilities and realities than most suburban municipalities, and that the additional revenues from homeowners amount to "taking less than pennies a day."

"The homeowners wouldn't really notice a cut. They'd hear the news, but they really wouldn't notice it. But our city finances would certainly feel it. Those councils ... if people default on property taxes, those reductions will be short-term gain for really long-term pain. "

What goes ahead?

Some spending commitments will still go ahead — depending on how important they are to councillors.

In Saanich on Monday, council voted down a motion by Mayor Fred Haynes to eliminate a $250,000 budget for a joint citizen's assembly with the City of Victoria to discuss the benefits of amalgamation.

Voters approved the idea and budget in a 2018 referendum, with a possible vote on combining the two cities in 2022 if the assembly recommends it.

Saanich Coun. Rebecca Mersereau says that even in uncertain times upholding priorities expressed by voters is itself a priority.

"We are fulfilling an obligation," she said. "To threaten that process or pull funding for it is really undemocratic."

But like Cameron and Nakagawa, she expressed hope that higher levels of government would provide more assistance to cities.

"Despite the temptation of taking some steps to help our residents, I think we need to remember that the best way municipalities can help our residents is by advocating for those much more directed tools that are coming from senior governments," said Mersereau.

"We can't lose track of the ... critical role of of local government despite these short-term challenges we have."

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