Got a bit of a civic budget hangover today.
After all these years of putting in my time in the council chamber on budget day, I should have known better: eat a bigger breakfast and drink more water so your brain is charged enough to avoid misplacing your recorder and notebook full of good quotes during the lunch break.
The fact is all those numbers, percentages and referral motions over a four-hour stretch can be a grind for someone who prefers fresh air over recycled air.
But there I was alongside the usual gang of journos with a front row seat to a political performance that attracted many of the city's high flyers from the police, fire and parks departments.
They were all there to ensure their budgets got approved and -- as is old news by now -- they did. More old news: Council voted 7-4 in favour of a 4.24 per cent tax hike to help fund those departments.
But there's always more to the story, and I didn't feel good about the bare bones piece I filed yesterday at deadline. So I've gone through my notes – and my recorder, which was covered in a mountain of papers on my desk next to my notebook -- to assemble some stuff that you should know.
First, I wanted to shed a bit more light on the surprise move by Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie to call for an additional .34 per cent increase on top of the staff-recommended 3.9 per cent tax hike.
That’s how we got to 4.24 per cent.
It was not only a surprise to opposition councillors but to veteran civic scribes, including yours truly, who couldn't recall when a councillor requested taxes be raised higher than a proposed hike — on the day of the budget vote.
I questioned Louie about this during the lunch break and he pointed to last year's budget when the majority of council approved an additional .5 per cent increase to raise $3.5 million to help battle the opioid crisis.
Not entirely true.
Yes, that increase was added to staff's initial proposed tax hike of 3.4 per cent, but staff indicated publicly the week before the vote that the .5 per cent “fentanyl tax” was coming.
I've got the story to prove it. So do many other journos who covered last year's budget.
Louie suggested last-minute requests for higher-than-expected tax hikes occur on a “regular basis.” He pointed to the failed attempt last year by NPA councillors Elizabeth Ball and Melissa De Genova to increase cultural grants by 20 per cent to generate another $1.6 million.
Louie later emailed me links to other times the NPA tried to adjust the budget on voting day, including NPA Coun. George Affleck’s motion in 2015 to cut $6 million from the budget “without ever describing which services that he would cut.”
Regardless, I reminded Louie in a lunchtime scrum that his party has been in power since 2008 and many, if not all, amendments brought forward by a Vision member gets passed.
His response: “We’re all equal, aren’t we, Mike? We’re all members of council.”
I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I surmise it has something to do with councillors being free to recommend what they want on the floor of council, despite party affiliation.
That extra .34 per cent increase, by the way, generates $2.4 million. Here’s what it will be spent on:
- $975,000 will pay for a “tactical response team” to review regulations and create new policy and zoning changes to increase housing options in low-density neighbourhoods.
- $500,000 will be put aside for “social grants,” which are given to nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Club and others who work with vulnerable youth and adults.
- $300,000 towards having Chinatown become a UNESCO-recognized heritage site.
- $300,000 to help staff reduce permit approvals.
- $250,000 to support programming related to the city’s work towards recognizing previous councils’ discrimination of Chinese people.
- $125,000 to hire a “renter protection manager.”
Maybe after reading that, you’re wondering why Louie didn’t earlier this month recommend to staff that these new investments be rolled into the budget without the need for a .34 per cent increase?
Louie’s explanation is that staff didn’t know whether council would approve the 10-year housing strategy that recently went before council.
So, he continued, he wanted to ensure the biggest chunk of the $2.4 million in new spending would be directed at housing. As for the Chinatown stuff, Louie said council was early in the bid process for UNESCO recognition and organizing an official apology to the Chinese community for historical wrongs carried out be previous councils.
“This provides the necessary funding in order to properly address the historical discrimination for the Chinese community,” he said.
Affleck listened to Louie’s rationale during the council meeting and was on the periphery of the lunchtime scrum before he interjected, calling it “complete B.S.”
Some colleagues and I captured what Affleck said after that in a one-minute video clip. It's kind of entertaining and, if you haven't seen it already, you should probably watch it.
Anyway, to some other stuff...
• Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer was the lone Vision councillor to vote against the police budget, saying it was difficult to reconcile spending money to hire more cops when the city's most vulnerable were in need of services.
“I have struggled really hard with this decision,” she said, her voice breaking as she noted her appreciation for the “hard and dangerous work” of the police department.
But, Reimer continued, she didn’t believe the city could “police ourselves out of these issues” of untreated trauma, mental illness, addictions, racism and misogyny.
“For those that are already vulnerable, [hiring more cops] increases their vulnerability and I cannot find my way to support the request for increased police officers,” she said.
• Though council voted 7-4 in favour of approving a 4.24 per cent tax increase, there were no less than 19 separate votes on different aspects of the $1.4-billion operating budget and $426-million capital budget, including votes on the budgets for the library and police, parks and fire departments.
• Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr's votes were all in line with the six members of Vision Vancouver. This is a 180-degree turnaround from her first budget vote seven years ago when she rejected the operating budget, along with NPA councillors Affleck and Elizabeth Ball.
“There’s more detail now and it does make me more confident and able to really look to where that spending is going, and in line with what priorities,” said Carr, noting the “detailed tables” explaining the budget in 2011 fit on one side of an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper.
‘Honest to God’
• The NPA's Hector Bremner likes to pound his fist and pencil on his desk when he speaks. He also had one of the best quotes of the day when he turned to Vision councillors Tim Stevenson and Kerry Jang to comment on their support for the tax hike.
“Honest to God, you are making an enormous mistake in doing this,” he said. “I’m trying to save you from yourselves. Good lord!
• The four NPA councillors did not vote as a team on every recommendation but made it clear they’re not against creating more affordable housing, but against tax increases. As Bremner said: “It’s not about spending less, it’s about spending better and families are counting on us.” De Genova also recused herself from voting on items related to policing because her husband is a member of the Vancouver Police Department.
So after all this, how is the 4.24 per cent tax increase going to benefit taxpayers and others?
Here’s what the city sent out after council passed the budget to answer that question, which I know won’t satisfy everyone:
· A number of initiatives designed to bring more affordable housing to market sooner, including planning for growth, implementation of the Empty Homes Tax and short-term rental program, and additional staffing to reduce wait times for development permits including faster approvals for affordable housing projects
· Additional support for the homeless, including more access to winter shelters, warming centres and temporary modular homes
· Additional funding to respond to the escalating opioid crisis
· Increased funding for childcare, almost double the commitment in 2017
· More police officers and civilian staff to help address increasing numbers of service calls
· Engineering utilities and transportation investments including for water, sewer and solid waste, major and local road improvements and improvements for snow response readiness
To close this exhaustive but necessary exercise I just put you through, I leave you with some of the words and phrases used by various councillors and the mayor during the debate.
Think of it as civic poetry, or something like that.
In the voice of your favorite slam poet: shocking, onerous, theatrical event, take action, point of order, interesting game, appropriate and fair, fewer children, mismanagement, affordable, least affordable, average individual, paying more, housing crisis, hard to believe, promises, reconciliation, homelessness, addictions, unfortunate, deeply concerned, great work.