Open Letter to Victorians

Last Saturday night I was elected Mayor of Victoria. It didn’t take long to sink in. And, as the Times Colonist reported, I was already hard at work first thing Monday morning.

What has taken longer is for me to sit down and write this letter to you all, reflecting on the state of politics in our city and on how we won the election.

First, I want to thank everyone who came out to vote on November 15th. Whether you voted Helps or someone else, Victoria’s voter turnout increased by 41% over 2011. This means that over 7000 more people made their way to their local polling station to cast a vote. This is good for democracy.  Thanks for voting. And thanks for electing me as your mayor. It’s my honour and I look forward to building this city, with you, for the next four years.

What’s taken me a week to recover from is how we do politics, even at the local level. In the final days of the campaign there was an orchestrated attempt on social media to call my integrity into question. What strikes me are two things. First, how, even people who I consider colleagues and supporters seemed poised, sitting there and waiting to hit the ‘share’ button. Second, social media can be a powerful force for spreading positive messages and it can also be a dangerous force where people share and post stuff they’d never say if they were standing there looking you in the eye.  

So what? Get over it? You won! One of the things I’ll be thinking about for a long time is this: How can we have good government when the way we get there is so nasty? And how do we rebuild community after we are so divided from each other on the campaign trail?

Whether you voted for me, or not, whether you campaigned with me, or against me, I am your mayor and I’m committed to working with you. But in some cases, we’ve got some repair work to do. I think it’s healthy for politics and for community building to talk through the messiness of the campaign, to name the things that are usually left unsaid, and to come out the other side stronger. I look forward to these conversations.

So, how did we win the election? More powerful than the endorsement of one MP and two MLAs, more powerful than thousands of dollars of attack ads, more powerful than last minute ditch efforts to dig up dirt and smear my name (“Lisa Helps herself” traveled quickly through the social media sphere), more powerful than all of this, is people.

I attribute my win to the hard and dedicated work of Team Helps, which was over 200 strong by the end. But it was more than this. It was you. It was 9200 of you, many of you first-time voters who saw in me someone that would listen to you, someone who would stand beside you, someone who had a bit of a fresh perspective, an eye to the future, and an ear to the ground. It was people that helped me win this election, and it’s people that will help me run this city for the next four years.  

Stay connected here as we transition this website from campaign mode to mayor mode. Check back regularly and please keep those ideas, thoughts, concerns and aspirations coming my way to lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca or call me or text me at 250-661-2708.

Strong Local Economy

Starting a new business or expanding an existing one is hard work, in and of itself.

When the guys at Wheelies Motorcycles on Rock Bay went to City Hall to get their idea off the ground, they got stuck in so much red tape that they asked me, as a councillor, to help them out. While I was glad to lend a hand, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to personally help every business person in need. City Hall needs to do a better job of delivering its services to citizens and entrepreneurs alike.

Therefore, as your next mayor, I will work with council to do the following to make it easier for everyone to get the services and help they need from City Hall, as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that they can help build a better Victoria for everyone:

  • Appoint a Mayor’s Economic Development Cabinet to advise the development office with people who understand both the city’s processes and the private sector. Set clear timelines and measurables for growing the economy. Monitor and report success. Start-up funding for this office will come from the City’s Economic Development Reserve Fund.
  • Make City Hall open for business. Create an Enterprise Facilitator position in the Economic Development Office to support people who want to open or re-locate a business in Victoria, with special attention to start-ups and young entrepreneurs.
  • Create and implement a regional economic development brand and plan. Work with mayors from across the region to establish a Mayors’ Caucus with a focus on regional economic development. Develop a shared understanding of the roles that economic development agencies and Chambers of Commerce play in regional economic development. Leverage the strengths and assets of each municipality – this will lead to the whole region being more than the sum of its parts.
  • Develop a business plan for the establishment of a business incubator downtown in partnership with the University of Victoria, Royals Roads University, and Camosun College. The incubator would have a specific focus on social enterprises (both for-profit and non-profit), as well as green and clean technologies, which support leading-edge business innovation more generally.
  • Support the technology and tourism sectors by continuing to build a vibrant downtown with businesses that provide top-notch goods and services. Work closely and collaboratively with Tourism Victoria and others to promote Victoria as a destination market that provides authentic, meaningful experiences to tourists. 

Read more about my plans to improve City Hall and how I want to help build a prosperous downtown and vibrant neighbourhoods.

ThankAndrew for your videography skills via Dodd’s Eye Media.

Affordable Community and my Homelessness Action Plan

As you see from watching the above video, I prefer talking about what I will do going forward rather than looking backwards, but it has come to my attention that throughout this election campaign my commitment to poverty prevention and affordable housing is being called into question.

Today, before tonight’s Our Place Mayoral candidates’ debate, I want to correct this misinformation by outlining my history of work on these issues. With that done, I can then share my concrete plans for the future.

I completed a master’s degree on the history of homelessness in Victoria from 1871-1901. I then went on to start a Ph.D. on the history of housing, homelessness and the governance of poverty in Victoria and San Francisco from 1930-1970. This Ph.D. work was funded by the Trudeau Foundation, which awards 15 scholarships in Canada each year for the study of ideas that can actually make change in the world.

At the same time as I was working on my Ph.D. I was a volunteer board member at Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group where we built, together with our neighbours, 10 units of affordable housing for families.

During my Ph.D. research I came across a story from the Times Colonist in the Depression where neighbours came together and helped each other out. When I read this in late 2008, current Times Colonist headlines were predicting ‘Next Great Depression on the Horizon.” Inspired by the action Victorians had taken in the past, I, with others, created Community Micro Lending – Canada’s first peer-to-peer micro lending program. As Executive Director of that organization I’ve literally walked alongside people as they walk out of poverty.

I’ve done strategic planning and visioning work with AIDS Vancouver Island, The Oasis Society, and Bernie Pauley’s “Street Stories” group some years back. For three years I was chair of the Bread and Roses Collective which produced the Victoria Street Newz sold by low-income people to supplement their income. More recently I’ve been working with a group called Moms Like Us to establish an internationally accredited Clubhouse in Victoria, a wrap-around care centre for people with mental illness and addictions.

I’ve studied and taken action on poverty and homelessness. As your mayor, I commit to continue to take action on these issues, with you.

How? Six concrete ideas:

  1. Continue to invest in the City’s affordable housing trust fund to help build affordable and supportive housing. Each year the City invests $500,000 in the City and the Region’s Affordable Housing Trust Funds. These funds are accessed by non-profit housing providers which get $10,000 per unit for new affordable housing units. Each $10,000 the City invests leverages $1.4 million in investment from other levels of government. In year three of my term I will look with Council to see if the amount we put in the Housing Trust funds can be increased.

  2. A recent study released by the Coalition to End homelessness revealed that the biggest need for affordable housing is for people who simply need an affordable place to live so they don’t become homeless. We need fresh ideas and creative solutions to get more units of affordable housing into play right away. I propose a small pilot project with 10 building owners 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. The current mayor and others running will say that this is a bad idea and that they don’t want to give money to private sector landlords. Yet the City has a heritage tax exemption program where every year the City gives 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.

  3. The Community Social Planning Council recently launched a Community Investment Fund. People can now invest their money locally to build affordable housing. I was involved in the early stages of the creation of this fund. As mayor, I will champion this new investment tool as a way to finance the building of more affordable housing. Again, a new, creative idea that can lead to more affordable housing.

  4. Cities cannot address homelessness and poverty alone. 2015 is a federal election year. In 1989 the federal government invested $115 per capita in affordable housing. In 2014 the federal government invests $58 per capita in affordable housing. Simply going back to the 1989 funding would cost $4.5 billion per year. Sound like a lot? It currently costs $7 billion per year, in Canada, to take care of people who are homeless. I have chosen affordable housing as my 2015 federal election issue and will work with mayors across the province and the country to advocate for federal investments in affordable housing.

  5. Poverty isn’t solved by affordable housing alone. I will work with Island Health and other partners to help ensure that those with mental health and addictions have access to services with dignity including a safe consumption site, harm reduction supplies, supportive housing and treatment and will work to establish an Internationally Accredited Clubhouse. I would also like to see a Committee convened, as proposed by Stephen Andrew, to inform how we address these issues, that includes those in recovery.

  6. Finally, many people who are poor often are ‘working poor’ and simply need a better paying job. City Hall has a huge role to play in increasing the number of well-paying jobs in Victoria. This is a top priority for my first term as mayor. Read more about my full action plan here.

Whole Hearted Politics

On Saturday morning I was honoured to participate with Barb Desjardins and Cairine Green in a women and politics panel at Weaving Connections: Leadership, Creativity & Social Change, organized by the friends of St. Ann’s Academy. The panel was a welcome reprieve from the campaign trail and an opportunity for sharing ideas and experiences about the challenges and opportunities of being women in leadership positions.

With one week left to go in a very heated campaign for City of Victoria mayor, I chose to focus my talk on whole-hearted politics. While spoken talks don’t always translate well into the written word, I think the remarks are well worth sharing for the many of us interested in transforming politics from a blood sport to a collaborative whole-hearted practice. Local politics is an ideal place to start this transformation.

Competition and Collaboration
If the 20th century was the century of competition, the 21st century is the century of collaboration.  The 20th century saw many large-scale wars. It saw the rise of mass consumerism, with companies competing viciously with each other for your every dollar. It saw the race to extract natural resources as quickly and ‘cheaply’ as possible without considering the consequences. And, in the latter years of the 20th century, the globalization of everything ramped up this spirit of competition far beyond national borders.

The 21st century is already shaping up to be different. It’s the century of collaboration. We see this in the private sector where the companies that are great places to work, are also the most profitable – they share data, resources and ideas with their competitors, raising the bar for everyone. We see this in the non-profit sector with organizations co-locating, sharing resources, working together to serve their communities. We see this globally and locally with people developing local solutions to climate change, poverty prevention, economic development, to name a few, and sharing these solutions globally.

But we don’t yet see this collaborative spirit in politics. There are many reasons that politics remains entirely competitive, separating elected officials from each other and from the people we are elected to represent.

First, at higher levels of government, party politics and the system of government creates a climate where people are expected to serve their party first and the people second. The very nature of the words ‘government versus opposition’ prevent collaboration. Rather than focusing on shared goals to improve the lives of residents and opportunities for business, the government and its opposition most often level spirited attacks against each other, pointing out flaws and weaknesses.

Second, the media pits elected officials against each other, and sometimes we get drawn in. At yesterday’s panel, during the audience discussion, a journalism student stood up and said she’d been taught that competition, conflict and controversy are what sells. This happens especially at election time.

Third, the very nature of elections and the electoral process is adversarial. Those of us trying to get elected need to spend months in self-promotion mode, telling everyone who will listen why we are ‘better’ than everyone else running and why our competitors are ‘worse.’ We must separate ourselves from each other. We must try to stand above each other.

Humanness and Vulnerability
As people running for, or elected to, public office we can begin to change this. We can bring our vulnerability, our humanness, deep understanding, compassion and even love and open-heartedness from outside the political arena smack dab into the centre of it.

We can understand that all of us running for office are fully human and therefore vulnerable. When attacks are leveled against us on the campaign trail we can look with compassion and deep understanding at those leveling the attacks. We can understand that the attacks come from a place of them too feeling vulnerable and exposed.

After we’re elected to public office, we can continually look for points of connection between ourselves and others. We don’t need to ‘put our differences aside’; we need to use our differences, to greet diversity and difference of opinion with curiosity, generosity and compassion. Coming together across difference is what creates stronger more resilient decisions.

Whole Hearted Politics
Finally, both when running for office and once elected, we need to remain open-hearted. Stop reading for a moment and clench your fist really tightly, as tight as you can. Then, let your hand fully relax. What feels better?

I’ve felt my heart slam shut a few times in the past week, especially after the Fernwood mayor’s debate where attacks were leveled against me for the first time. And that’s taken a lot of energy, feeling defensive, clenching my heart shut so that all those comments can bounce off.

There is strength in whole-hearted and loving politics. When our hearts remain open, any negative comments that come our way can filter through and wash away. When we do this on the campaign trail, and once elected, it can clear away our defensiveness and ready us for clear-headed decision making. Surely this clear-headedness is what we want of all of our elected officials.

My final words to the crowd gathered at St. Ann’s Academy on Saturday morning. “My project for the next week? To love Ida Chong, Dean Fortin, and Stephen Andrew with an open heart.”

Setting the Record Straight

I’m learning a lot about politics in my run to be your mayor. The mayor’s debates have been particularly interesting. I think if someone did an analysis of the amount of airtime the candidates spend looking backwards at what has or hasn’t been done, and pointing fingers, we’d see that a lot of the time is spent on this.

I’ve been trying to keep my spirits up and to stay focused, looking forward, on the future of Victoria, and on the city that we will create, together if I’m elected on November 15th. I relish the opportunity to serve as your mayor and I feel really excited about the energy I sense in the community about change and possibility and a new way of doing politics.

There has been some misinformation, so I want to set the record straight and share my perspective on a few issues that are really important to me, and to you as well.

Crystal Pool
The word on the street is that I plan to privatize Crystal Pool. I don’t. On October 13th2013, the day Council was asked to vote on whether we want to have a publicly owned and operated swimming pool or not, I published this blog post. In it I said, “I support the retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria. And, to be perfectly clear, I support this facility being operated by the City and staffed by our terrific, competent and very capable workers.”

I also said, should the City decide to rebuild rather than refurbish the pool, that we keep our options open as to how we get to a publicly run swimming pool. My commitment to Victorians in my detailed election platform is to develop a business case for a Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre that incorporates a publicly owned and operated swimming pool and recreation centre as well as commercial / retail space and housing. This may require a partnership with the non-profit or private sector for the housing portion and for the commercial space (for doctor’s office, massage therapist, chiropractor etc).

When I was asked to vote on the issue at the Council table, it was framed as a black and white choice. In order to keep the City’s options open, to innovate, and to look for creative solutions, I was forced to vote “no”.  There was no outside the box option available. The spirit of leadership that I bring to the table is to look for a common goal – a publicly owned and operated swimming pool – and a willingness to find new and creative ways to get there.

City of Victoria Housing Trust Fund
Early in our term of Council we were considering the contribution that the City makes to the City and the Regional Affordable Housing Trust Funds. Every year the City puts $500,000 into these trust funds. Early in my term, Council was considering reducing this to $400,000 per year for the next three years.

We were making this decision in October 2012. From July to October 2012, I had undertaken budget workshops across the City to ask Victoria residents and business owners for their input on the 2013-2015 budget. The number one concern I heard from seniors was that Victoria is getting too expensive. While Council may have capped the property tax increase, their pensions weren’t going to increase that much every year.

The voices and concerns of the seniors were on my mind when I voted, at Governance and Priorities Committee in favour of reducing the City’s contribution to affordable housing to $400,000 per year.

But then, in the two weeks between the committee decision and the Council decision (which is where we make final policy decisions) I learned something important. I learned that each $10,000 the City contributes to new affordable housing projects, leverages $1.4 million in contributions for other funders. So in voting to cut $100,000 I’d actually be cutting $14 million in potential funding. With this new information in hand, I voted in favour of keeping the City’s contribution at $500,000 per year. As a leader I’m willing to change course when I get new information and evidence.

In my platform I commit, in year three of our term, to see if there is money in the budget to increase the amount we put into the affordable housing trust funds.

Tax Exemptions for Non-Profits
In this past term, Council reviewed its non-profit tax exemption policy. In so doing, we found something troubling. In 2006, Council had changed its tax exemption program so that new applicants to the program were granted only a 50% property tax exemption. At the same time, Council grandfathered a 100% permissive property tax exemption for all organizations that already received a tax exemption.

Frankly put, organizations that had received a tax exemption before 2006 received a 100% exemption. Organizations which had applied after 2006 received only a 50% exemption. This is unfair and it is an unequal application of policy.

Council wanted to make sure that City policy is applied fairly to all the amazing organizations that do important charitable and community service work in the community. And I also understand the challenges facing this sector, having worked in it for many years. So we voted to phase in a 50% exemption for everyone over a 10-year period to give the organizations receiving a 100% exemption time to adapt to the new policy gradually.

Thank you
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and for continuing to share your thoughts and concerns with me going forward. I welcome a diversity views, even when they differ from my own. This is part of how I learn. For me, continuous learning and ongoing dialogue are key qualities that I’ll bring to the role of mayor.

Accountability and Public Participation

City Hall needs to do a better job of spending your dollars, and we need to involve you in the process. As your mayor, I will ask for your input and I will listen to you to help shape the City and its future.

Learn more about my record of accountability during my term on council:
http://focusonline.ca/?q=node/793

See more videos at https://www.youtube.com/user/VotingHelps

Housing Ends Homelessness

Last week, both the Chamber of Commerce and the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs Survey identified homelessness and housing as top priorities. When business and community come together and identify a common priority, we need to take action.

Risk of Homelessness Increasing

Since 2008 when the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness was founded, we’ve made some progress in the City and the region. Yet according to a recent study on Patterns of Homelessness in Greater Victoria between 2010-2014, more people sought temporary shelter in 2014 than in 2010. And shelter capacity went from 86% in 2010 to 112% in 2014. (See Figures 1 and 2 below.) We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

The most striking finding of the study is that the vast majority of people who used shelters between 2010 and 2014 are not chronically or episodically homeless. In the four-year study period, 655 people stayed in shelters experienced ‘episodic’ and ‘chronic’ homelessness (see Figures 4 and 5 below). Just over 3600 people experienced temporary homelessness. They just need an affordable place to live.

The report concludes, “The sheer number of individuals who resorted to accessing emergency shelter indicates a lack of homelessness prevention services and emphasizes the need to address low income and affordable housing issues in Greater Victoria to prevent homelessness.”

Innovative Pilot Project 

Today, I announced a plan for a pilot project that would work with willing private sector landlords to designate 10% of rental units in 10 buildings as supportive and affordable housing units for 10 years.

The pilot project would see Victoria City Hall work with willing building owners to immediately address the urgent need for supportive and affordable housing in the City of Victoria. In exchange for designating 10% of units in their building as affordable and supportive housing for 10 years, property owners would receive a property tax exemption that would offset their lost revenue and leave a bit of money in their pockets at the end of the day as an incentive to participate in the program. There are a few private sector landlords who rent units at an affordable rate through various existing programs. The proposed pilot project would provide an incentive.

Half of the units would be designated as affordable housing to help address homelessness further “upstream”. With cost of living on the rise, the need for affordable housing is growing every year. If the pilot project proves successful, City Hall would pursue opportunities for expansion.

Moving Victoria Forward

In order to move Victoria forward and to create opportunities, we first need to make sure that people can afford to call our city home. This project is a result of months of working with stakeholders, and one willing landlord has already expressed interest. Everyone agrees that the growing need for affordable and supportive housing is a top priority so I am eager to champion greater collaborative action.

 

A City Hall that Works for You

A City Hall that Works

Having a vibrant city with festivals, activities for families downtown, beautiful new buildings, safe and welcoming public spaces, affordable housing, and a strong local economy built on a solid foundation of thriving local businesses is good for everyone. Businesses create jobs while providing a place to get that delicious Americano, a loaf of bread, a good lunch.

During my time on Council, I’ve received countless calls and heard numerous stories from people trying to start small businesses in our city – Fry’s Bread, Wheelie’s Motorcycle Café, Shatterbox Coffee, among many. All of these businesses are run by local people choosing to stay in Victoria. They employ people. And yet, each of them struggled through City Hall’s processes that took far longer than necessary to open, creating an unnecessary and expensive burden for a start-up to shoulder. This is a problem. It prohibits growth.

Similarly, building permits, home renovations, larger scale developments, and organizations building affordable housing are all an important part of the City’s economy. Yet they take unreasonably long, and the steps are often unclear and unpredictable. This leads to frustration. It also tempts people to build without a permit to avoid the red tape at City Hall. People tell me, “Next time, I’m not coming into City Hall. It takes too long and time is money when you’re hiring contractors to do the work.” This is a problem.

Reality Check

For much of the last three years, despite the City having adopted a Customer Service Action Plan, and opening both a Customer Service Centre and a new Planning and Development Centre, the situation hasn’t changed at a fundamental level. City Hall has great staff. Our staff isn’t the problem. The problem is how City Hall is organized – as a series of silos.

In the last eight months, under our new City Manager’s “one city” approach, we have finally begun to make some headway. But the reality is that a City Manager can’t change everything. What’s needed is a mayor with a vision and a plan for running City Hall as an organization that directs its resources towards the goal of making Victoria a prosperous place.

How We Make City Hall Work

To solve these problems takes strong, focused, bold leadership. Run-of-the-mill political leadership isn’t enough, focused so often on re-election rather than best practices. Victoria needs a mayor with a rich and diverse leadership background who understands complexity.

An organization like City Hall is a complex system; all the parts need to be working as a whole focused on the goal of creating local prosperity. If City Hall were run in this way, Wheelie’s, Shatterbox, Fry’s Bread and many other businesses would have been open much sooner, making them more viable from the outset. It would be less stressful to renovate your home. Development projects could be built in a more efficient way, with important decisions being made at the front end of the process. Affordable housing projects would move ahead more quickly. It would be easier for citizens to turn new ideas into action. Victoria would be more prosperous.

Leading for Positive Change

For the past 17 years, I have held a number of leadership positions in Victoria. Nearly 20 years ago, I managed UVic’s Martlet newspaper. I was Board Chair of Fernwood NRG during the revitalisation of the Cornerstone Building and the construction of affordable housing at Park Place. I was Chair of the Bread and Roses Collective, which produced the Victoria Street Newz (now The Megaphone). I helped shape and deliver the Leadership Victoria curriculum. I founded and was Executive Director of Community Micro Lending – an organization that provides mentorship and facilitates loans for small-business start-ups. For the last three years I’ve served as a City Councillor, immersing myself in the issues facing this city, both in Council Chambers and on the ground with citizens.

Working within and across many sectors, I’ve learned how to manage and lead in a way that breaks down silos and creates connections. Victoria needs a mayor who understands complexity and who can bring her diverse leadership experience to bear on the problems at City Hall.

Victoria’s next mayor also needs to understand that a mayor is more than one vote on Council. A mayor is also the CEO of the Corporation of the City of Victoria and has the responsibility to work with her senior management team to help shape how City Hall works and serves. My plan is to transform City Hall into an organization that works as a system, with all staff in all departments working together to serve our residents and businesses.

How a boarded up building became the heart of a community: The Cornerstone Story

I was talking with a downtown business owner yesterday evening. She, like many, is concerned about the increased number of vacancies downtown over the past few years. We see this every day in the for lease signs that have become all too common in downtown storefronts. “We need to do downtown what you did in Fernwood,” she said to me. And she pointed to the creativity, innovation and bold action that me and others at Fernwood NRG took to address a big vacancy in the heart of our village centre and to revitalize the neighbourhood.  

It was early 2005. Fernwood Square, which had once been filled with patrons from the Thin Edge of the Wedge spilling into it, had become eerily quiet. The George and Dragon Pub once a lively neighbourhood gathering place across the street had fewer customers with each passing day. Worst of all, City officials had boarded up the building at the corner of Fernwood and Gladstone and declared it unsafe for habitation.

At the time, I was vice-chair of the board of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group (Fernwood NRG). I’d gotten involved in the neighbourhood a year earlier because I wanted to put my community building skills to work in the place I lived.

Fernwood NRG’s Executive Director had a bold idea. She proposed that Fernwood NRG buy and revitalize the boarded up building. Until that point Fernwood NRG mostly ran childcare and senior’s programs. But there was a desperate need to create vibrancy in the heart of our neighbourhood. And, if not us, then who?

In August 2005, after complex negotiations and very creative financing (not even our local credit union would give us a mortgage so we ended up negotiating a high-interest mortgage with the seller) the Cornerstone Building came into neighbourhood hands.

It was with ruthless clarity of vision and hard work that a small non-profit turned a derelict building into the beating heart of our neighbourhood. While negotiations were underway to purchase the building, the board of directors put together a business plan. Did we lease the primo corner unit to someone else or open a café ourselves? Did we strata the building and sell off condos on the top floor or did we fill a gap of much-needed affordable housing?

We had a long-term vision. And we also had the passion, dedication, gifts and skills of our neighbours. Working hard together we created the Cornerstone building as a thriving social enterprise, beginning with the popular Cornerstone Café.

It’s an innovative model – Fernwood NRG sells great coffee and food and re-invests the profits in its programs that serve neighbourhood residents. The café was only the beginning of a promising trend for the village centre. Fernwood NRG also signed a long-term lease with Stage restaurant, catering to Belfry Theatre patrons. In addition, the building now houses The Yoga Den and Studio 1313, Canada’s first social-enterprise hair salon.

Upstairs four families moved into the three-bedroom affordable housing units. Between 2004 and 2006, the residential vacancy rate in Victoria was 0.5 per cent, the lowest of all Canada’s metropolitan areas, while the average rent for three-bedroom apartments was $1,126 per month. Fernwood NRG’s Cornerstone Building didn’t just generate revenue for the neighbourhood. It also filled a core social need.

This growth and vibrancy spread beyond the Cornerstone. Across the street, the George and Dragon changed hands, was renovated and opened as the Fernwood Inn. It’s now a lively neighbourhood gathering place. And there’s a colourful local market, Aubergine Grocery, next door.

Today, the heart of Fernwood stands as an example of bold vision coupled with hard work and collaboration. Just take a walk through and you can feel it. Victoria, too, has all the talent it needs to overcome any challenges we face. All that is needed is a deep understanding of the issues, bold leadership, a willingness to think outside the box, and a City Hall that fosters and supports new ideas.

To read more Fernwood NRG and the Cornerstone project, head here

Property Taxes 101

Property taxes have gone up 26% over the last six years. Good tax policy and living within our means is needed to create an affordable city for Victoria’s residents and businesses alike. I have a plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better for the next four years. I also have thoughts on the impact that freezing the property tax ‘mill rate’ for four years would have – both on commercial property owners and on the fiscal management of City Hall.

Before I share my plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, and look more closely at the impact of freezing the property tax mill rate, here’s a property tax primer. What is the mill rate anyways?

Property Taxes 101
The City divides property owners into six classes. 
Residential and business make up the vast majority of property. To create its annual budget, the City multiplies the assessed value (which is produced independently by BC Assessment every January) by a ‘mill rate’ for each class of property. The ‘mill rate’ is set independently by the City to produce the amount of revenue required for the City’s operations.

The City runs a surplus annually. Unlike other levels of government, municipalities are not allowed to run deficits. The surplus varies from year to year and is transferred to the City’s infrastructure reserve fund at the end of the year. This reserve fund is important to the City’s long-term sustainability. The City uses its reserves for important infrastructure like water and sewer pipes, parks, roads and greenways. With reduced or no surpluses in the annual budget, infrastructure reserves would shrink. This would compromise the City’s ability to care for its infrastructure for the long term.

Taxes collected make up roughly 55% of the City’s annual budgeted revenues. User fees for water, sewer and garbage are other ways the city earns revenue to provide services.

New tax revenue from new growth is based on re-assessments of properties on which there is construction – new buildings and building improvements. New tax revenue has decreased significantly in the last five years. The last two years are dire:

2009:  $1,958,701
2010:  $1,878,822
2011:  $1,659,973
2012:  $328,105
2013:  $108,640

These numbers show what I hear a lot – that it’s hard and slow to get through the processes at City Hall to build or improve a building in Victoria.

My Plan
Fix City Hall so it works
 and so that in can play a role in creating a beautiful, vibrant city and new tax revenue. Foster and support new, sensitive, beautiful buildings and enterprises in Victoria by creating an Economic Development Office (start up funding to come through the City’s Economic Development Reserve Fund). Support small business and reduce downtown retail and commercial vacancies through the creation of an Enterprise Facilitator position in the Economic Development Office. More details 
here.

Overhaul City Hall and create an innovative, creative work culture where front-line staff are empowered to innovate and look for cost savings. Working with The Pacific Institute, the City of Saskatoon did this between 2004 and 2009. In 2009, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses named Saskatoon the most business friendly city in Canada. And, between 2004 and 2009 Saskatoon saved $56 million dollars. Not by cutting and slashing services, but by working smarter and encouraging cooperation and innovation throughout the organization. And yes, it’s a unionized workplace, just like the City of Victoria.

With City Hall working and new revenue from new development coming in and with innovation, creativity and cost-savings realized, I will work with Council and city management to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better.

Freezing the Mill Rate is Not Freezing Taxes
Freezing the mill rate means that if the assessed value of properties goes up, taxes will go up. If the assessed value of property goes down, taxes will go down. In both cases, control of city finances is surrendered to the vagaries of the market. Property owners could find themselves paying dramatically more, or the City’s budget might have a hole blown in it. And, worst of all, we wouldn’t know it until the year in question. Remember, the City only gets the assessment information in January of the budget year. This is no way to govern an organization that is run with public dollars.

Finally, freezing the mill rate would prevent the City from continuing to re-balance between residential and business taxes. In 2010, the business mill rate was 3.59 to 1 versus the residential mill rate. Today it is 3.18 to 1. We’ve made a bit of progress in the past few years and I will keep working on this for the next four.

Sensible Tax Policy
What I’m hearing over and over again is that Victorians want to live in a place they can afford. And they want a city government that takes into consideration their ability to pay as it sets its budget and tax rate each year and decides how to spend their money.