A recent and very well done Times Colonist series by Sarah Petrescu documented the economic hardships of many people in the region, from single moms to seniors. I’ve heard from these people.

Two days after I was elected a long-unemployed woman sent me three different versions of her resume asking, now that I was mayor, could I help her find a job. Not long after, a short, hand-written letter arrived in the mail: “Hello Lisa, Please be sure that property taxes don’t increase, decrease would be better. I’m still paying with post-dated cheques for the last property tax. I am 83 years old and I find it very, very hard.”

During the election last fall, and since taking office, I’ve also heard from countless small business owners who are struggling. I’ve spoken too with downtown building owners who offer new tenants two to three months free rent and still can’t fill their vacancies because of the high rents they have to charge to cover property taxes. I’m also continually reminded by small business and building owners that it still takes a long time wading through City processes to get a small business open.

How can we make 2015 a pathway to prosperity for residents and our small business community in the City and the region?

Concrete Stepping Stones
I will make two commitments to you as we move forward. First, we’ll actually do stuff. We’ll move from idea generation, to concrete plan with timelines for change, to implementation, to regularly measuring our successes and failure and improving accordingly.

We’ll fail sometimes. And when we do hopefully the failures will be early and fast so we can learn and improve before we’ve wasted your time and money. Be patient with us. And give us feedback. My second commitment is that I’ll listen to it.

Here are just a few short-term, concrete steps towards increased prosperity and affordability I’d like the Council to take immediately after finishing its strategic planning process. The beauty of the planning process and of drawing on the wisdom and experience of the Council members is that even more good ideas will emerge.

  1. Create an Economic Development Task Force
    We don’t need more studies or strategies on economic development. We need action. Section 142 of the Community Charter enables Councils to create Select Committees to “consider or inquire into any matter and to report its findings and opinion to the council.” One member of the select committee must be a council member; the rest can be members of the public.
    I’d like Council to create a time-limited, task specific Select Committee called the Economic Development Task Force. I’d like this committee to have a March to August mandate and to report to Council in September. The committee will be tasked with advising Council on the best way to create an Economic Development Office at City Hall and with developing a mandate for this office.The mandate for the Economic Development Office may include but is not limited to filling downtown vacancies, attracting new companies, attracting more well-paying, family-sustaining jobs in a variety of sectors, supporting green and clean economy initiatives and supporting sustainable and innovative real estate development. The Office will have clear and measurable goals. City Staff will be tasked with developing a business plan for sustainable funding to this office. Start-up funding can come from the City’s Economic Development Reserve Fund. This proposal is subject to the will of Council; I’m committed to working with Council to refine the idea and to seek their input and wisdom.
  2. Continuously Improve our Small Business Processes
    Small businesses are the lifeblood of Victoria’s economy and key to generating local prosperity. Taking a business from idea to startup is a huge undertaking. I’d like to see the City make business start-ups and expansions as easy as possible by helping and enabling. This is a big endeavor and will require comprehensive action, part of which can be implemented through an Economic Development Office. In the meantime, City Staff have been working with our small business community. Here are two small pilot projects and successes that reduce red tape and decrease processing time. I’d like to see many more of these.
  3. Authorization Method for Inspections for Plumbing Permits 
    Soft launch: November 2014 Full launch January 1, 2015 On November 19 City Staff hosted a first ever contractors breakfast. They sent over 200 invites, and all the major local plumbing contractors attended. The new authorization method allows the plumbing inspectors to accept a declaration from the plumbing contractors without on-site inspections. This method would allow staff to better manage inspection activities and to allow construction to continue without delays due to inspections.
  4. Electronic Submission of Sign Permits
    Soft launch: Summer 2014 Full Launch November 2015
    Need a sign permit for your small business? City staff started accepting sign permits electronically in the summer as a pilot. Customers were given a choice of electronic or paper submission. Most preferred the electronic method and now, almost all sign permits are processed electronically saving both time and trees.
  5. Implement an Affordable Housing Pilot Project
    At the end of this four year term I’d like to be able to say with confidence, “Victoria is a place where there is always an opportunity for everyone to prosper.” But as I said in a recent Vic News article looking into the year ahead I think affordability and prosperity are two sides of the same coin. If you don’t have a home, you can’t have an opportunity to prosper.
    Many people and organizations in the City and the region are working hard on affordable housing. Here’s a small policy pilot project I’d like to see implemented in Victoria and, colleagues willing, in Esquimalt and Saanich too. There’s not any one idea that can solve the affordable housing crisis. Here’s another tool for the toolbox.
  6. ‘Ten by Ten’ affordable housing pilot projectWork with 10 building owners (per municipality) who would commit to designating 10 percent of their units as affordable (i.e. not more than $550 per month for a one bedroom) for a period of 10 years and receive a corresponding property tax exemption that offsets the lost rent. There’s a precedent. The City already has a heritage tax exemption program. Every year the City grants millions of dollars of tax exemptions to private sector landlords who own heritage buildings. This helps to get these old buildings restored. Surely affordable housing deserves the same attention as heritage.  

Together in 2015, with these initiatives and others, we can begin to lay the pathway for prosperity so that Victoria is a place where there’s opportunity, for everyone. 

This blog post was written while listening to Glenn Gould’s moving interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with a cup of ginger tea.

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