Tiny Homes, Questions addressed, By-Election, City Budget, And Happy Holidays – Mayor’s Sunday Email – December 13 2020

Hello everyone,

Thanks so much for your emails this past week. In keeping with my Sunday tradition, I’m writing back to all of you at once so that everyone’s emails get answered in a timely way and so that everyone has as much information as possible about sheltering, housing and other related matters. If you’d like to receive an email each week you can sign up here. If you’re interested in reading back through the Sunday emails to get caught up on the issues, you can also do so here.

Tiny Homes
Before I dive in specifically to address your concerns from this week, I did want to share an exciting project which was inspired in part by the many emails I’ve received over the past few months suggesting that we build tiny homes for people who are currently homeless. This week, Aryze Developments and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness launched the Hey Neighbour tiny home campaign. They are raising $500,000 to build 30 temporary tiny homes to get people out of the weather as soon as possible. A site has yet to be confirmed; there are a number of options being explored.

Thanks for the good idea over the past few months! And to those of you who have written this week with suggestions for how the Tiny Home village could work, thank you. I’ll pass them along.

In just the first five days of the campaign they’ve raised $122,000. Charitable tax receipts are available through the Coalition. If you’re interested in learning more or donating you can head here.

Your Questions and Concerns Addressed
I’ve received emails this week from people who live near Central Park, Meegan/Beacon Hill Park, Gonzales Park, Vic West Park and Cecilia Ravine and from people who use Beacon Hill Park on a regular basis. You all sound like you’re at a breaking point – your frustration and anger come through loud and clear. You want things fixed. You want your parks back. You want to know what we are going to do. In some cases you are fearful, in others you say you’re just tired of the hassle of people camping in our parks. You want to know why it seems that bylaws aren’t being enforced. And why there is so much garbage everywhere. You also want to know why we can’t just have everyone in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park congregate at the gravel field.

I’m afraid that I don’t have many good answers to your questions, which I’m sure is not what you want to hear. We are in the middle of global health pandemic. It’s been over 280 days since the pandemic was declared; living like this is clearly weighing on all of us. We can’t see our friends or loved ones. Life is totally upside down. And on top of that, our much loved parks are full of people who have nowhere to go. And they really do have nowhere to go.

Our bylaw, public works and parks staff are out in the parks on a daily basis cleaning up and working to bring people into compliance with the bylaws. It is not easy work and they are doing their best. There are over 170 people camping in seven or eight parks so that’s a lot of people to connect with on a daily basis.

As for Meegan/Beacon Hill Park and concentrating everyone on the gravel field: We know from past experience that large, concentrated encampments don’t work for the people living in them or for the nearby neighbours. But also, as I’ve noted in previous emails / posts, even if we wanted to organize a camping service in Meegan/Beacon Hill Park, the Beacon Hill Trust, dating back to the 1880s prevents any organized service provision in the park. Again, probably not what you want to hear.

I jogged through Meegan/Beacon Hill Park this morning and I did see quite a few tents, and some sites in disarray with some belongings strewn everywhere. And I heard one person yelling and swearing. And honestly – and you might not like this either – what I thought to myself re: the belongings strewn everywhere is, “Well, I’ve got lots of extra belongings too and thankfully I have a basement to store them in.” And when I heard the person yelling, I thought how terrible it would be to have your yelling heard by everyone like that, whereas when most of us yell, it’s in the privacy of the four walls of our homes.

I’m not saying these things to say that everyone should think like me; I am just really wanting to illustrate that there are a variety of perspectives possible about the same situation. And that listening to and understanding these various perspectives is what creates a healthy community and democracy.

I do hear your perspectives and your concerns. That’s why we’ve set a realistic deadline of March 31 2021 to work with the Province and support them in offering people indoor spaces and ending 24/7 camping in all of our parks. Each week small progress is made moving people from outside to inside. But the progress is slow. All 60 units renting at $375 per month in the new buildings in Langford and View Royal have been filled, mostly by people living in supportive housing. This means that there are now – or will soon be – vacancies available for people living in shelters or parks to move into.

BC Housing has used 15 of the 60 rent supplements they have available, which means there are still 45 subsides left. Island Health has about the same number remaining. As I’ve said in past emails, with $375 income assisance shelter rate plus $450 for a rent supplement, the total available is well below market rent in the region. We’re still working creatively to fill that funding gap.

There are still spaces available at the New Roads Therapeutic Recovery Community in View Royal; a few people are moving in there each week. And there’s a space for about 30 youth that will be opening soon. And there are the 30 tiny homes. We will need the Province to open some more spaces, or top up the rent supplements further, or both, to achieve the goal of moving people inside by March 31st. But please know that there is a plan and everyone I know who works in the housing and outreach field and provincial ministers and staff are working hard to make it happen. Almost all of the people living in the parks have filled out housing applications or indicated their desire to move inside.

It is clear, as I’ve said before – and with this I think you would agree – that having people living in parks isn’t good for anyone, not the people living there or the people living nearby.

A few of you have written this week with concern for the youth who are gathering under the Johnson Street Bridge. You’re concerned about their health and well-being but also about the fact that they’re gathering at all when we’ve all been told to stay home. To be honest, I don’t know whether many of these kids have homes. But in response to your emails, I will ensure that the youth homelessness team at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness connects with these kids, if they haven’t already, to see what kind of supports might be needed.

And finally, there have been some questions over the past few weeks about why there are no people camping in parks near where I live. Camping is allowed in Stevenson Park behind the Fernwood Commuity Centre. But unlike the parks where we’ve directed people for camping* it does not have a washroom. In early September, a motion was made at the Council table to prohibit camping within 100m of schools (instead of the 50m that was proposed). Even though the parents at South Park School wanted a buffer of 100m from their school, if I had voted for this 100m buffer, that would have also meant banning parking in Stevenson Park, so I voted against it, which kept Stevenson Park on the list and available for camping.

When schools closed earlier in the pandemic, I also suggested using Vic High (I live two doors down) as a shelter. This didn’t pan out because of the impending construction. I also suggested that the vacant land behind Vic High might be good for sheltering, but this too will soon be under construction. What is proposed to be built there is 154 units of affordable housing, including 20% of units that will rent at $375 per month and are for people coming out of homelessness or out of supportive housing. I look forward to welcoming my new neighbours, should Council approve the development to go forward.

By-Election Results and City Budget
I wanted to also share the by-elections results with all of you, in case you hadn’t heard. Last night Stephen Andrew was elected to fill the ninth seat on Victoria Council which has been vacant since August 2019 when Laurel Collins left to run for MP. I spoke with Stephen last night to congratulate him and to let him know I’m looking forward to working with him. It will be good to have nine of us at the table again. Being shorthanded for this long has meant extra work for the rest of us. It has also meant a few tie votes on key items, and motions fail on a tie.

In addition to helping our new colleague settle in, a key decision on the horizon is the 2021 budget. Council reviewed the draft budget in great detail in November and asked many questions of staff through motion that we’ll get a report back on in January. Now, it’s time for you to weigh in! Staff have created a really great budget survey this year – more direct and user friendly than in past years. The survey results will help to guide Council’s decision on the final budget in the new year.

All of you who have written to me – and those who read these weekly posts – obviously care deeply about our city. The budget is the most important decision Council makes each year. So a final piece of holiday homework from me is a request that you take the time to fill out the budget survey. With my thanks in advance.

Happy Holidays
This will be my last Sunday email / blog post of 2020. I’m going to take the next few Sundays and hopefully a few more days than that of quiet time and rest. Your emails will be gathered up and I’ll respond to them on Sunday January 3rd.

It’s been quite the year for all of us in Victoria, BC, Canada, and the world. As we awoke on January 1 2020, COVID-19 was a world away and few could have anticipated the toll it would take this year on our seniors, health care workers, small businesses, governments, and on each and every one of us. No one is exempt, everyone has been impacted, although not everyone has been impacted equally.

Seniors in care homes have been most vulnerable, with the majority of deaths in BC taking place in those settings. Women, youth, people of colour and Indigenous people working in low-paying service jobs that were the first to be cut have suffered economically. Our beloved small businesses were hit disproportionately hard. And of course, as oft discussed here in Victoria and in cities across the country and around the world, when everyone was told to “stay at home”, those who didn’t have homes really stood out, as they were left outside.

2021 will be year of hard work and recovery. And as we implement both the regional Reboot Strategy as well as Victoria 3.0 our job – as a whole community, province and country – is to leave no one behind.

I wish you and your loved ones a safe, socially distanced, but close-in-heart holiday season.

With love,
Lisa / Mayor Helps

*With the exception of Central Park – in that instance people showed up there and we had to adapt to the circumstances and provide washrooms and running water.

Council balances 2020 budget and leaves additional $17.6 million in reserve funds

Facebook live update August 7 2020. We’ll be back on Friday September 4th at 1pm to update on City’s continued COVID-19 initiatives and Council decisions more generally.

I opened my remarks on Friday with gratitude to front line city staff. Over the past months of the ongoing global health pandemic, our bylaw team, our public works team, our parks staff and many more have been on the front lines doing their jobs in extremely challenging circumstances. On behalf of myself and Council, I want our staff to know how much we appreciate them. If you see a city worker out there, please stop and give them your thanks. It really makes a big difference.

On Thursday, Council revisited the 2020 budget items postponed in April due to decreased revenue and the economic uncertainty as a result of the pandemic. Because of COVID-19, revenues are down most notably in parking, the Victoria Conference Centre and revenue from the City’s commercial tenants.

After a long day and night of debate and discussion, Council made some important decisions:

  • We agreed to use the approximately $3 million in COVID-19 related savings from 2020 towards the expected operating budget revenue shortfall and additional pandemic related costs.
  • With a few exceptions, we postponed a significant number of capital projects, strategic plan action items and a number of proposed new staff positions.
  • The Hillside-Quadra neighbourhood has been eagerly anticipating improvements to Topaz Park. I’m happy to report that Council will be making a $3.7 million investment in the long-awaited bike skills and skate park. Design will begin in 2020 with construction anticipated in 2021. We know that infrastructure investments are key for governments to make during a recession. These investments support the private sector to keep local people working and support local supply chains through procurement of goods and services.
  • Council also allocated funding to install a new public washroom downtown at the south end of Douglas Street.
  • And finally, the City will be establishing an Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, which will be staffed by an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer and an Accessibility Coordinator. This will provide resources to carry out a number of Council’s strategic plan projects and priorities.

What this all means is that Council has eliminated the projected deficit for 2020 and we’re leaving an additional $17.6 million in reserves. This will keep our reserves healthy as we don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. Like other governments and private sector businesses, we are making tough budget decisions right now. I believe we’ve landed on a smart, prudent way forward.

Council also held three public hearings on Thursday night on land use for new developments in Victoria. Public hearings look a little different these days – everything’s done online or via phone. I’m so happy we’ve been able to forge ahead with important projects while still allowing residents the chance to participate in land use decisions.

Thursday night Council approved 151 new rental units and the heritage revitalization of the Scott Building at Douglas and Hillside. This will give a much-needed boost to the rental stock in the city and it’s also a key project that will enhance the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood.

The City is continuing to see strong uptake on our Build Back Victoria program that allows for free expanded patio and flex space for businesses. We have received 97 applications and 72 permits have been issued. Staff are working fast on the others.

Another weekend is here, and I hope that everyone is out visiting some of those patios, exploring the city and supporting our local businesses. Without many of the three million tourists we see each year, our visitor economy is hurting. We can all do our part to help.

In addition to staying local and shopping local, myself and the mayors across the region have written a joint letter to Minister Joly, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, in Ottawa this week asking for more support for the tourism industry in Victoria. Conferences, sports tourism, cruise, the Clipper, and Coho are all on hold and shut down this year. The closures are for good reason, but they do come with consequences. Our visitor economy will recover once medical advances to combat COVID-19 are available, but it needs help to survive to get through the winter and into next spring.  It was great to work with all the regional Mayors on this to show support for our local industry.

It was also great to see tourism in our downtown featured on the front page of the Times Colonist on Tuesday. It’s wonderful to see people visiting Victoria from across Canada and enjoying everything that our city and region have to offer. I want everyone to know that they are welcome here.

I closed my Facebook live on Friday with a thank you to Mary who has been signing for us for the past few months. Friday was Mary’s last day with us as she is now retiring. She has been a sign language interpreter since 1985 working in both Ottawa and for the past 26 years here on the island. She’s been a respected colleague and mentor to many interpreters in the field and has provided interpreting services to ensure inclusive and accessible communication with hundreds of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals over the years. We have so appreciated Mary’s work with us over the last several months, and I’d like to wish Mary a very happy retirement.

On behalf of myself and Council, I hope that everyone is having a safe summer, keeping those safe distances and keeping circles and gatherings small. We’re hopefully through the worst of the pandemic at this point, and on a solid pathway towards economic and social recovery. To make this so and to stay on this pathway takes all of us, working together.

Council will be taking a break until September 3rd and I’ll be taking a short holiday, of sorts. With so much to do, including ongoing support needed for our businesses to recover and continuing to work hard with the Province to find indoor sheltering solutions for people camping in parks throughout the city, it won’t be a regular summer holiday this year. I do intend to do some writing and reflection as well, which I will post here on this blog. Please feel free to share this site with others and encourage them to follow if interested in receiving regular updates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal and Provincial Governments Work Together to Provide Rent Relief to Business – Thank You!

For those who want to stay right up to date with what’s happening in the City on COVID-19, please join me daily on the City of Victoria’s Facebook page at 2:30pm. And please share this link and information with your friends and neighbours. We’re getting lots of emails with lots of questions and we’ll do our best to answer them and keep you and the media up to date with these live daily updates. I’ll also post the videos here from now on. This video is my address from Thursday. We’ll be back Friday at 2:30pm. 

News from the federal government

A few weeks back, myself and other community and business leaders wrote this piece in the Times Colonist asking for rent relief for businesses. Many businesses were directed to close to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to reduce the burden on our health-care system. Many others have done so voluntarily. We acknowledged their sacrifice.

This morning the Prime Minister announced a plan to help businesses pay rents for April, May and June. He said that plan will be worked out with the Premiers across the country, as rent issues fall under provincial jurisdiction. This is fantastic news. It is heartening to hear our call answered and our businesses supported.

Today, the federal government also announced that their business loan program, which offers businesses a loan of up to $40,000, will now be available to businesses with payrolls worth between $20,000 and $1.5 million. We know this will help Victoria businesses because we’ve had emails from businesses who didn’t previously qualify that now do. More good news!

News from the provincial government

Today the Province announced significant measures to support both businesses and local governments. For commercial and industrial properties, the Province further reduced the school tax rate and delayed the penalty date for payment of property taxes until October 1st, which means that most commercial property owners won’t pay their taxes until October 1st.

For municipalities, changing the due date for school taxes until the end of the year is welcome. For Victoria the extension of the commercial property tax extension is a little more complicated. Almost 50% of our tax base is commercial. Deferring the penalty date to October means we’ll need to manage our cash flow a little bit differently. But we are all in this together and because this is a positive announcement for businesses, we are okay to do whatever is necessary to make this work.

We remain hopeful that further announcements will be made to reinstate the Province’s financial hardship deferment program for residential taxpayers Such a program would provide significant relief to those in our community who are suffering hardship as a result of the pandemic.

News from the City

Today Council passed two motions to further address support for vulnerable communities in the midst of COVID-19. First, Council has asked me to write to the Province requesting they use their emergency powers under the Emergency Program Act to requisition hotel and motel rooms in the Capital Region for all unhoused people and to provide the health, mental health and addictions support for people moving in.

I have said many times that we all need to be able to follow Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice around physical distancing, hand washing, and staying at home if we are able. If you don’t have a home, this becomes impossible.

Council also passed a motion to allocate a grant of up to $50,000, from previously approved COVID19 response funds, toward emergency outreach services for vulnerable populations, to be allocated among organizations currently providing mobile outreach services in Victoria.

Starting tomorrow the City is implementing additional measures to ensure residents can still enjoy parks and open spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. The parking area off Foul Bay Road and Crescent Road, serving Gonzales Beach Park, will be open to service and emergency vehicles only. The public washroom next the parking area remains open. People have been gathering on Gonzales beach need to limit this for now.

Physical distancing measures in Beacon Hill Park will continue on weekends only. Additionally, in response to requests from residents, we’ll put new signage in narrow pathway areas to remind residents to allow others the space they need to remain safe and follow health advice. And we’ll work with the Township of Esquimalt staff to ensure a coordinated approach in border areas.

We’ve received great feedback about our Recreation ambassadors, who are out in parks to engage with residents about recreation facility closures and to remind people about physical distancing. We continue to examine other opportunities to improve physical distancing while allowing our residents to still get outside and enjoy the nice weather we’ve been having.

 News from the community

We’ve been talking a lot over the past many weeks about programs and resources for adults, but this is also a really difficult time for a lot of young people who are coping with having their routines turned upside down and anxieties and fears around this challenging time.

I want to share a resource put together by Victoria’s Stigma Free Society – A COVID-19 Youth Wellness Toolkit. This is an amazing, comprehensive resource. There’s a Youth Corner for grades 4-6 and a Teens Corner, for grades 7-12. There are videos, stories, activities, and also resources for parents. A huge thanks to the Stigma Free Society for putting this together. You can check it out here.

I also want to let you know that Foundry services continue online. The Foundry Victoria, which offers young people 12-24 access to mental health and substance use support, primary care, peer support and social services, is now offering virtual drop-in counselling for young people ages 12-24 and their families. To access this service, call 1-833-FØUNDRY (yes, that’s FØUNDRY with a zero! or 1-833-308-6379) to book an appointment. Sessions are available through chat, voice-only calls or video calls.

I’m grateful to both of these programs for providing support to youth through this pandemic so that they know that they are not alone.

Council Provides COVID Relief to Residents and Businesses

For those who want to stay right up to date with what’s happening in the City on COVID-19, please join me daily on the City of Victoria’s Facebook page at 2:30pm. And please share this link and information with your friends and neighbours. We’re getting lots of emails with lots of questions and we’ll do our best to answer them and keep you and the media up to date with these live daily updates. I’ll also post the videos here from now on. This video is my address from Thursday. We’ll be back Tuesday at 2:30pm. 

News from the provincial government

Today the province announced an expansion of virtual mental health supports. Working with partners, this will include online counselling supports, including for youth and immigrant and refugee populations. There will be a lot of resources available, check them out on the province’s COVID 19 website. This is a really important resource. We know there are people who are struggling right now. Please reach out if you need help.

News from the City

Today, at our Council meeting we made amendments to the 2020 Budget to deliver a financial relief package to help those in the community who may be experiencing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • There will be no property tax increase this year for residential or commercial ratepayers
  • The deadline to pay property taxes has been extended to August 4 and a reduced penalty has been put in place for late payment
  • The deadline for utility bill payments has been extended to 90 days

Council has shown leadership in making these important decisions. We’re making these significant changes, while continuing to provide the services our residents depend on and leaving a little bit more money in people’s pockets. We understand the challenges out there. These decisions will help in some small way to reduce the financial hardship many of our residents and businesses are currently experiencing due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Council will also advocate to the provincial government to reinstate the property tax deferment program and extend the program to commercial properties, as well as amend the homeowner grant program to increase amounts and create a new category of grant for those who have suffered financial hardship.

Most of the City’s capital projects will still go ahead as planned as they preserve existing infrastructure, are safety related or are already in progress. To take advantage of lower traffic levels, the City will accelerate some of its major capital projects slated for the downtown core.

While the City is reducing work in some areas, it has more than $80 million in capital projects moving forward supporting the local economy. The $21.8 million in capital project spending that Council has deferred as of today will serve as a stimulus during economic recovery.

To make it easier for those who need to come downtown and park, rates in City parkades will be reduced to a maximum of $5 per day and on-street parking rates will be $1 per hour with no time limits except for 30-minute zones. These rates will be in effect for as long as the provincial state of emergency is in place.

Starting tomorrow and for future weekends, Beacon Hill Park will be closed to public vehicle traffic. This will free up space so local residents can stay active while also maintaining safe physical distances. City staff will be out in parks to engage with residents about playground and recreation facility closures and remind park users about physical distancing.

In addition, parking along Dallas Road will be realigned from angle parking to parallel parking in order to maintain physical distances. Parking along Douglas Street and on Nursery Road will remain open with an increased number of accessible stalls.

Beacon Hill Park and Dallas Road are magnets for visitors from all over the region, however, it’s important right now that we stay close to our homes and not travel to parks outside our local neighbourhoods. The Provincial Health Officer has encouraged us all to stay home as much as possible, and when we do go out for exercise and fresh air, staying close to home is the best option.

News from the community

Today I gave a big shoutout to VIATEC. VIATEC is the umbrella body for the tech community in Victoria. It owns Fort Tectoria, which houses office space for local companies and an event and gathering space.

VIATEC let us know that they have waived rent for all Fort Tectoria tenants for April. They’ve also offered membership deferrals, provided their job board at no charge to ViaTec members, and donated $10,000 to the Victoria Rapid Relief Fund. Thank you VIATEC for being such an important part of our city, for supporting your tenants and for helping out the wider community at this challenging time.

I also want to let you know that the Dandelion Society is hiring Shelter Support Staff immediately to support people who are experiencing homelessness. A background in Social Work, Mental Heath, Custodial, Security or Customer Service desperately needed. Experience working with this population is an asset. This posting can be found on The Chamber of Commerce job board, and you can also e-mail expressions of interest to mforbesbc@gmail.com

Have a wonderful long weekend everyone. I’m going to try to take a bit of downtime and begin to reflect on what recovery looks like and how we’ll all need to pull together on the other side of this pandemic to ensure a prosperous, inclusive, resilient and low-carbon future.

Dr. Henry Says Act as if COVID-19 is in Every Community in B.C.

For those who want to stay right up to date with what’s happening in the City on COVID-19, please join me daily on the City of Victoria’s Facebook page at 2:30pm. And please share this link and information with your friends and neighbours. We’re getting lots of emails with lots of questions and we’ll do our best to answer them and keep you and the media up to date with these live daily updates. I’ll also post the videos here from now on. This video is my address from Tuesday. We’ll be back Wednesday at 3:30pm. Note the new time for Wednesday.

News from the federal government

A reminder that if you need to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and your birthday is in April, May, or June, today is your day to apply. The application days have been staggered to make it easier for people to apply. Yesterday we detailed who is eligible, but you can also learn more and apply here.

News from the provincial government

Today Dr, Bonnie Henry wrote an op-ed which I encourage you all to check out, called, “No Boundaries with COVID-19″.  In it, she addresses how much information she discloses about the location of confirmed cases and why specific locations – neighbourhoods or cities – aren’t disclosed.

I want to share this important point from her article with you: “While I understand the desire to know and understand what the COVID-19 situation is in your community, I need to emphasize that knowing where the positive cases are does not protect you, your family or your community. The actions you take will do that. No one is immune from this disease, but everyone can make a difference. Every British Columbian has a part to play to flatten the curve.”

It is a good reminder for all of us who have not had the virus that we are not immune. We ALL need to commit and re-commit to the measures that will keep our community safe and healthy.

 News from the City

This Thursday at Council we’ll be re-opening the City’s budget in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Just like many businesses and households that have less revenue than usual and less cash on hand, the City’s revenue is also down, which means we have difficult decisions to make.

What some people might not know is that legally, municipalities have to balance our budgets. We can’t spend more in a year than we bring in. We are not permitted to run a deficit. This makes our work even more difficult.

But, we do have some ways we can help residents and businesses financially through the City’s 2020 budget. We are looking at potentially delaying significant capital projects and other new city initiatives in order to reduce the city’s 2020 budget.

If we reallocate over $11 million from those projects, as staff are recommending, then we can extend utility bill due dates by 90 days, and extend the property tax deadline to August 1st. Additionally, staff are recommending we create a larger operating contingency budget by deferring city projects and initiatives because we don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. This will put us in better shape to provide stability for city services that we all depend on – like garbage collection and clean water – even if the crisis continues for some time.

We will also need to have a difficult conversation about the property tax increase. As of now, 2020 taxes are proposed to go up by 3.35% We could put less money in our reserves this year and lower the property tax rate. This will be another difficult conversation that Council has on Thursday.

In short – I hope we can make the most of our resources to help residents and business owners in this time, without reducing the services you all depend on. These will be extremely tough decisions, and we will be making these decisions publicly in our Committee of the Whole and Council meetings Thursday.

As I said yesterday, we don’t have the same tools as the province and the federal government to be able to provide big financial relief packages. That’s why staff are recommending that we ask the Province to:

    • Increase amounts for Homeowner Grants, and create a new category of grant applicable to people who have lost income due to the pandemic
    • Reinstate the financial hardship Deferment Program and extend the program to commercial properties
    • Change the date that we have to pay taxes to other agencies

You can read the full staff report here, which includes the lists of projects we are considering deferring. And you can, as always, watch our webcast as we hold our budget debate.

News from the community

The Rapid Relief Fund, started by the Times Colonist, the Victoria Foundation, and the Jawl Family Foundation have now set a target of $4 million in donations, and Victoria is really coming through. They are almost there! So many people have been helped already through this fund – every dollar raised goes to COVID relief in Greater Victoria. If you’re in a position to help them get to $4 million, you can do so here.

City to Ask Supreme Court of Canada to Rule on Municipal Power to Regulate Business Use of Plastic Bags

Plastic Bag Press Conference.jpeg

Earlier this week at the Union of BC Municipalities conference, the City held a press conference attended by local elected officials from across the province. We announced our intention to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the City’s appeal with respect to plastic bags and the authority of local governments to regulate businesses in line with the values of the community.

In July, the BC Court of Appeal overturned a lower court ruling and set aside the City’s Checkout Bag Regulation Bylaw, which regulated businesses providing checkout bags to customers and included restrictions on the use of plastic checkout bags. The Court of Appeal ruled that the purpose of the bylaw was the protection of the natural environment and that it required approval from the Province of BC prior to being enacted.

After careful review, the City has decided to ask the Supreme Court of Canada to review the Court of Appeal decision to clarify a municipal government’s power to regulate unsustainable business practices that negatively impact the community.

The BC Court of Appeal decision goes far beyond the issue of plastic bags. It strikes at the heart of the power of local governments to regulate business practices in line with 21st century community values. If the decision is allowed to stand it can potentially be interpreted to severely limit the power of local governments. This is why the City of Victoria is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Court of Appeal decision – that the bylaw required provincial approval – runs contrary to a principle previously mentioned by the Supreme Court of Canada that law-making and implementation are often best achieved at a level of government that is closest to the citizens affected and therefore most responsive to their needs and to local distinctiveness.

At the press conference, two of my colleagues – who are also leading by creating business bylaws that reflect the values of their communities – shared their thoughts

“Large and small local governments across British Columbia are enacting bylaws that regulate the use of single-use plastics, in response to the strong wishes of their citizens and businesses. These local governments are not wavering in their commitment, but a review of the BC Court of Appeal decision is critical,” said District of Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne. “Most municipalities simply don’t have the resources to respond to legal challenges or take issues like these all the way through the court system, so I welcome the City of Victoria’s decision and deeply appreciate their leadership.”

“As Squamish works to develop a bylaw towards eliminating single use items, I wish to recognize the City of Victoria for taking continued leadership with the development of its original bylaw, and now as the City seeks leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Local governments of all sizes across Canada are grappling with complex issues such as climate change, environmental degradation, housing affordability, economic disruption, policing, and the list goes on,” said Squamish Mayor Karen Elliott.

“We engage with our citizens, businesses and others to find local solutions that work in our particular circumstances, and that can potentially inspire other communities to act. As the government closest to the citizens, it is critical that our power to implement bylaws and regulations, in line with a community’s values and long-term goals, is protected to the fullest extent possible.”

The City believes that the Court of Appeal applied a very restrictive interpretation of municipal power to regulate business, which could potentially affect other municipal bylaws not only in Victoria but across B.C. and in other provinces that have similar municipal legislation. Therefore, this case raises issues of general importance and warrants consideration by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The City of Victoria’s Checkout Bag Regulation Bylaw came into effect on July 1, 2018 and regulated the types of checkout bags that could be offered by businesses to customers. The bylaw was developed with extensive input from local businesses, industry and the community during a two-year engagement period. The implementation of the City’s checkout bag bylaw in 2018 was enthusiastically embraced by both businesses and customers and was used as a model by a number of other B.C. municipalities.

The bylaw was challenged by the Canadian Plastic Bag Association, an industry lobbying group, that alleged the bylaw was not a valid business regulation but rather an environmental regulation that required provincial approval prior to adoption by the City.

The Association’s challenge was dismissed by the BC Supreme Court in June 2018 when the judge found that the bylaw was, in fact, a business regulation and that any environmental effect of the bylaw was merely incidental and secondary to its main purpose to regulate business checkout transactions. In July 2019, the BC Court of Appeal overturned the lower court’s finding when it concluded that the bylaw was an environmental regulation.

Victoria has made sustainable business practices the new norm.  Since the bylaw’s introduction, the community eliminated 17 million plastic bags from the waste stream which will result in both short-term and long-term cost savings for waste management.  Although the Checkout Bag Regulation Bylaw has been set aside and has not been in effect since the Court of Appeal decision on July 11, most businesses in Victoria continue to operate as if the bylaw was still in effect – a testament to the wide community support of the bylaw.

Under the Supreme Court of Canada rules, the court decides whether or not it will hear the appeal. The City’s deadline to apply is September 30. It normally takes between four and six months for the decision on whether or not the Supreme Court of Canada will hear the case.

 

Federal Budget 2019: Good For Cities

 

 

It was my pleasure to welcome the Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, the Federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development to Victoria recently where he toured the City’s Public Works yard as well as a BC Transit “smart bus”, and gave an update on Budget 2019, in particular what’s in it for cities.

Since Confederation in 1867, the funding formula for cities has changed very little. For every tax dollar that Canadians pay, approximately $0.92 goes to the provincial and federal governments and only $0.08 goes to local governments. This despite the fact that about 70% of public infrastructure in Canada is within the jurisdiction of cities. And cities are responsible for approximately 50% of greenhouse gases generated in the country. In addition, cities are faced with poverty, mental health, addictions and homelessness with little to no resources to deal with these pressing economic and social issues.

While this federal budget does not address all of these challenges, it gives an important nod – and some significant resources – to the ability of local governments to solve local problems locally.

Federal commitments in Budget 2019 on affordable housing, transitioning to a green economy, and skills training align closely with Victoria City Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and with the Capital Regional District’s recently adopted Strategic Plan as well.

Municipal leaders know, as do our federal counterparts, that taking action on those issues is crucial to ensuring that Canada’s cities are liveable, healthy, and competitive in the global economy.

I’m proud that the Capital Regional District’s Regional Housing First Program was profiled in Federal Budget 2019 (see page 31). I note this because the program is a quintessential example of local innovation and leadership supported by – but not dictated by – federal and provincial funding.

The Regional Housing First Program was designed by and for our communities here in the region. Thankfully, the federal funding for the program is helping us to make transformative progress on eliminating homelessness and providing safe, affordable, and supported housing.

The federal commitment of $30 million was made in May 2018 (to match provincial and regional commitments of $30 million each) and already we have opened Millstream Ridge in Langford. It’s a 132 unit building run by the Capital Regional Housing Corporation and it includes 30 units which rent at $375 per month.

This kind of thinking – federal support for local innovation – is why I was pleased to see the Federal government use Budget 2019 to transfer $2.2 billion in Federal Gas Tax funding to municipalities and First Nations. It charts a path toward a modernized federal-municipal relationship that gets more done for Canadians. Permanently growing this core funding stream would directly empower municipalities to deliver on national objectives.

This gas tax measure, which will see an additional $3.5 million flow to the City of Victoria – and $21 million flow to the region – is a great way of allocating federal funds directly to local governments where they are coupled with local expertise to address short-term infrastructure priorities in communities across Canada. This funding allows projects to get underway now without grant applications and federal or provincial approvals.

In recent years, the City of Victoria used Gas Tax funds in several crucial ways. We’re building a 32km bike network for people of all ages and abilities and we’re also working to complete a harbour pathway. We updated our storm drain system. And we installed LED street lights throughout the city. This last investment is saving us approximately $200,000 per year in hydro costs which we are reinvesting to fund other essential energy and GHG reduction initiatives in the city.

These gas tax investments have also made Victoria a more dynamic and enjoyable place to live by increasing infrastructure for health and well-being. And, since addressing climate change is a shared priority of the City of Victoria and the federal government, it is no coincidence that our Gas Tax-funded projects all improved Victoria’s resilience to climate change and reduced carbon pollution.

In addition to being good for health and well-being and good for the climate, local investments in capital infrastructure are good for the economy. For example, last week the CRD adopted its 2019 budget. Included in the budget are $382 million dollars worth of capital improvements – sewer, water, housing, parks, trails and more. This investment is expected to generate 814 new jobs in the region and 1121 new jobs across British Columbia.

Cities are creative, innovative places that hold some of the solutions to the challenges faced by federal and provincial governments, most notably climate change. Investments like the ones announced in Budget 2019 will help the federal government to deliver on its climate mandate by enabling cities to have a strong voice and to take strong action in shaping our own infrastructure priorities. Cities and metro regions are key to the federal government meeting its Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement; they are behind and we can help. Cities are here as allies and partners.

I look forward to inviting Minister Duclos and other federal ministers back to Victoria in the future.  And I look forward to showing them how we’re continuing to take local action and improve our communities by using the funds announced for local governments in Budget 2019.

 

 

Quality of Life Focus for City’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and Budget 2019

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During the election campaign last fall when I was at community meetings, in living rooms, in small businesses and on doorsteps I heard loud and clear that quality of life and well-being are important to Victorians. I heard this from the very young, the very old and everyone in between.

That’s why in Council’s recently adopted 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and in this year’s budget we are making meaningful investments in livable neighbourhoods, affordable housing, senior’s and community centres and safer, more human-scale streets. I know from speaking with members of our business community that quality of life is key to them thriving as well – business owners and employees like all the amenities that come with living in a place where people’s health and well-being matter.

Over the past four years Victoria has enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity. We are re-investing the benefits of a strong economy to improve life for people. The actions in our four-year Strategic Plan are focused on what our residents want and asked us to do, to make Victoria more affordable, create welcoming neighbourhoods, and to act now on climate change.

In addition to continuing to invest in better City services for people, Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan puts a priority on things that will make a real difference in people’s daily lives.

To make Victoria more affordable for families, the City is putting $1 million into the Housing Reserve Fund in 2019 and implementing a new suite of housing initiatives to increase the number of affordable homes for people in all stages and phases of life’s journey and to support renters.

To create infrastructure that will keep us all healthy, the City is investing in active transportation, street improvements and traffic calming, with more than $31.6 million over the next four years going to keep people moving around the city safely and efficiently.

To help them deliver high-quality services, Victoria’s eight community centres and three seniors centres are receiving a $234,000 boost to their annual base funding. Neighbourhood Associations will receive a total of $100,000 to support neighbourhood planning.

The City will also convene a Seniors Task Force to learn more about seniors’ needs and desires and to develop the City’s first Seniors Strategy. This will support seniors in remaining independent, healthy, active and socially-connected in the community.

A new investment of $858,000 annually will expedite implementation of the Urban Forest Master Plan, to maintain the trees we have and to plant new trees. In 2019, a total of nearly $3 million will go to maintain and enhance the urban forest, with the long-term goal to increase tree canopy coverage to 40 per cent.

The Strategic Plan and Budget were developed with broad public input. More than 1,500 people provided their ideas and feedback to Council in the budget survey and town hall meeting, and another 150 people participated in the Strategic Plan Engagement Summit to share their knowledge and experience to help Council shape the plans.

 The Goal of the strategic plan was also developed by the public: “By 2022, Victoria will be a bold, thriving, inclusive, and happy city that people love. We will be known globally for our climate leadership practices, multi-modal transportation options, innovative approaches to affordable housing, and for meaningful reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on whose homelands our city was built.” Working together, side by side – council, staff and the community – we will achieve this.

Read the whole plan here.

Highlights of the 2019-2022 Strategic Plan

The 2019-2022 Strategic Plan includes more than 170 actions in eight strategic Objectives.

  1. Good Governance and Civic Engagement
  2. Reconciliation and Indigenous Relations
  3. Affordable Housing
  4. Prosperity and Economic Inclusion
  5. Health, Well-Being and a Welcoming City
  6. Climate Leadership and Environmental Stewardship
  7. Sustainable Transportation
  8. Strong, Liveable Neighbourhoods

In addition, Council has set the following Operational Priorities, reflecting the shared values of Council and  City staff, residents and the business community:

  • Heritage conservation and heritage designation
  • Nurturing and supporting arts, culture and creativity
  • Creating and maintaining a high-quality public realm
  • Continuous improvement with regard to open government
  • Meaningful and inclusive public engagement
  • Sound fiscal management
  • Accessible information, facilities and services

Objective #1 – Good Governance and Civic Engagement

  • Working with Saanich Council to develop and implement a Citizens Assembly process to explore amalgamation.
  • Offering free childcare at City Hall during public hearings.
  • Releasing closed meeting decisions and Council member expenses quarterly.
  • Working to regionalize police services and consider the possibility of a single, amalgamated police service for the region

Objective #2 – Reconciliation and Indigenous Relations

  • Working with First Nations and the community to create the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues.
  • Reinstating the City’s Indigenous Artist in Residence program, providing the opportunity for a local Indigenous artist to develop artistic works and engage the community in dialogue and events.
  • Establishing an Indigenous Relations function and appointing Indigenous Elders in Residence to provide advice on City programs and operations will be considered in 2020 with guidance and support from the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.
  • Exploring co-governance of Meegan (Beacon Hill Park) and shoreline areas with the Lekwungen speaking people.

Objective #3 – Affordable Housing

  • Investing $1 million in the City’s Housing Reserve Fund in 2019 and to acquire lands and partner with other agencies to end chronic homelessness.
  • Investing an additional $545,000 in 2019 on a suite of initiatives to encourage and incentivize more affordable homes for people, especially families, as well as look for further opportunities to speed up and simplify the development process for affordable rental homes.
  • Assigning a Tenant Housing Ambassador at City Hall to make it easier for renters to navigate the Tenant Assistance Policy, Standards of Maintenance Bylaw and other programs to support renters, being considered in 2020.
  • Considering grant programs for secondary suites and affordable garden suites, including those that are accessible and serve an aging population.

Objective #4 – Prosperity and Economic Inclusion

  • Convening the Mayor’s Task Force on Economic Development and Prosperity 2.0 to hit 2041 job targets.
  • Allocating more than $1 million in the City’s Festival Investment Grants over the next four year years ($270,000 annually) to create a vibrant city, strengthen downtown and enhance liveability.
  • Investing $1.5 million to support public art, festivals and events, including the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize, Indigenous Artist in Residence, Artist in Residence, and Poet/Youth Laureate programs.
  • Providing nearly $4.3 million each year to support economic development initiatives and make it easier to do business in Victoria, including the Business Hub at City Hall, the South Island Prosperity Project, the Victoria Film Commission and operating the Victoria Conference Centre.
  • Exploring ways for businesses in Victoria to become living wage employers.

Objective #5 – Health, Well-Being and a Welcoming City

  • Creating a Welcoming City Strategy to promote inclusivity, understanding and collaboration
  • Striking a Peer-Informed Task Force to identify priority actions to inform a Mental Health and Addictions Strategy, actionable at the municipal level.
  • Creating a city-wide Childcare Strategy and Action Plan.
  • Developing and implementing an Accessibility Framework to make City policies, services, infrastructure and facilities more accessible for all.
  • Increasing local food security with urban agriculture initiatives to foster food production on private land, support farmers markets and community gardens, food storage and distribution systems.

Objective #6 – Climate Leadership and Environmental Stewardship

  • Taking serious climate action to reduce carbon pollution by 80 per cent and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.
  • Working with the community to develop and implement a Zero Waste Strategy that will chart the course to a local economy where nothing is wasted.
  • Allocating $13.7 million in upgrades to the drinking water, stormwater and sewer system.
  • Implementing the BC Step Code and mandating electric vehicle charging capacity in all new developments.

Objective #7 – Sustainable Transportation

  • Providing a $975,000 increase in capital investment for street improvements, for a total of  $3.6 million in 2019.
  • Investing $450,000 in traffic calming initiatives to make local streets safer, and reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h on neighbourhood streets by 2021.
  • Investing $2.5 million in crosswalk upgrades or new installations at 18 locations to improve safety and encourage walking.
  • Fast-tracking completion by 2022 of the City’s 32-kilometre, AAA cycling network through
  • Providing free BC Transit passes for all Victoria youth, funded through new revenue raised by charging for Sunday on-street metered parking beginning May 1, 2019.

Objective #8 – Strong, Liveable Neighbourhoods

  • Investing $35 million in 2019 in the City’s parks, recreation and facilities, which includes 137 parks, 207 hectares of parkland, 90 hectares of natural landscape, 40 playgrounds, 23 tennis courts, 12 dog off-leash areas, 45 sports fields and 104 City facilities.
  • Expanding the LIFE program to provide low-income families with free year-round use of the Crystal Pool and Fitness Centre and ice skating at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
  • Exploring partnerships to create meeting space and a home base for neighbourhood associations that currently do not have their own community centre.
  • Providing $60,000 for the City’s Participatory Budgeting program to empower the community to direct investment in neighbourhoods, with youth-themed projects the focus for 2019, newcomers in 2020 and neighbourhood placemaking in 2021.

 

Bridge to the future

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For more photos of the bridge opening celebration, see the end of this post.

It began early Friday morning. A small group gathered with Esquimalt elder Mary Anne Thomas and Songhees elder Elmer George on the new bridge at dawn. The elders called on the ancestors as they blessed the bridge and asked for protection for all who pass over it. As they did, I thought about all the other public infrastructure in the City, here on Lekwungen territory, that hasn’t been blessed. The City is in a process of reconciliation with the Songhees and Esquimalt nations; honouring their ancient tradition was the right way to prepare to open our new bridge.

When I arrived at the bridge site before the opening ceremony, I hadn’t expected to see such a crowd. It had taken us a long time to get to opening day, the road had many bumps, and the project had been controversial. But there were Victorians, some 10,000 strong, ready to mark the day together.

I learned something important about our community yesterday. The community scrutinizes (keeping a close eye and criticizing as the project budget increased and the timeline extended) but when the time comes, we are able to look to the future and to move forward together. This is a remarkable quality that will serve us well as we grow and change over the next hundred years.

As a community we collectively persevered to ensure that we have a safe, functional and extraordinary piece of infrastructure that I felt proud to present to the public. The bridge is a manifestation of the dedication and hard work of the people in both China and Victoria who built it. It’s an emblem of pride of workmanship. It’s a testimony to years of local work on site and especially local work in the last eight months since the bridge arrived, getting it ready for opening day. There were a number of local apprentices who trained on the job; they are the workforce of the future. And, they’ll be able to visit the bridge with their kids and grandkids and to say, “I built this.”

There was another key reason to celebrate: through the lessons learned on the bridge project, City Hall has turned a corner on project management and now has the capacity to deliver large scale infrastructure projects; both the Fire Hall Project and the Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre Replacement Project will demonstrate this. This new way of doing business is what the public expects and deserves.

An afternoon long, 10,000 person community picnic, festival and celebration might have been enough.  But the old bridge had been decked out with a disco ball and lights. As dusk fell, it became a festival of light. I joined in with the hundreds of people that had started an impromptu dance party, music blaring from speakers left behind from the day’s events.

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I felt like I was in a different city for a moment, but then I realized, this is the new Victoria emerging. It’s a Victoria that believes in spontaneity, light, laughter, well-being,  and connection. This is Victoria in the 21st century.

 

Bridge Opening Day Photo Gallery

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Thousands of people cross the bridge together as a community for
the first time after the ribbon is cut.

 

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The Island Chef’s Collaborative providing fresh snacks.

 

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Celebrating with a picnic lunch on the deck of Old Blue.

 

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The Greater Victoria Placemaking Network in action, gathering people’s favourite memories of Old Blue.

 

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A blue bridge mask-making table saw hundreds of kids go home
with a homemade momento of Old Blue.

 

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Two adorable kids who had just been to the mask-making table.

 

 

City Budget – Your Input Needed

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City Council is about to make the most important decision it makes each year, and we’d like your help. Join us at the Budget Town Hall this Thursday November 30th. Or take the survey here.

How does the annual budgeting process work? At the beginning of the term Council set objectives for the City through the 2015-2018 Strategic Plan. Each year at budget time Council reviews the strategic plan and allocates funding through the budget to achieve its objectives including Create Prosperity Through Economic Development, Make Victoria More Affordable, and Take Climate Action and Prepare for Emergencies, to name just a few.

In late October and early November Council dove deeply to the 1116 page draft budget document. We face a challenging task: how can we continue to provide the broad scope of approximately 200 services and over 200 capital infrastructure projects that our citizens value and also meet demands from citizens and businesses for increased or new services? And how can we do this in a way that keeps people’s ability to pay their taxes top of mind?

This is where we’re looking for your input. We know our residents are busy so we want to make it easy for you. Head here for all the information you need about how to participate.

There’s be a budget survey so you can share your priorities with us. There’s a property tax calculator so you can see what the impact of any proposed increase would be on your particular property. There’s a budget snapshot for each neighbourhood so you can learn more about the work proposed to be done in your area. And most importantly, there’s a Town Hall meeting on Thursday November 30th at 7pm at City Hall. Come in person if you can; if you can’t you can call in, email, tweet, and Facebook with your questions and comments. We will use the public input gathered to inform Council’s decision on the budget in early January 2018.

Council understands like you do that, the City budgeting process is about services – ensuring your money is spent prudently on the priorities of our community. But the bigger picture, or perhaps the guiding principle of Council in making budget decisions is to make sure that we’re spending your valuable money in a way that enhances individual and collective well-being and meets the demands of our growing and changing community.

As I’ve shared in my last few articles, and based on census data, our community is changing. Young families with kids need playgrounds, green spaces, downtown public spaces that are welcoming for everyone; seniors need gathering places and programs to keep them connected with each other and with the community; young people need to be engaged, have their voices heard and the city shaped around their needs; and all of us need to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century including building a resilient low-carbon city for the future.