This Friday, I’m speaking on the opening plenary of a conference in Montreal (virtually of course!) called Policies for Better Lives. It’s an international conference of researchers focused on well being and policy development. Most of the conversations about measuring well-being are focused at the provincial and national level. It seems I’m being brought in as a local voice to remind the research community that their questions and research agendas also need to focus on cities.
Every year cities spend millions of dollars on programs and services; how do we know whether our spending is enhancing or detracting from residents well-being? How do we know whose lives are getting better by the investments we’re making? These are important questions to answer in our annual budgeting process, particularly coming out the other side of a global health pandemic where already vulnerable people have been made even more vulnerable and the pandemic revealed cracks in our social safety net. I’m honoured to help set this international research agenda, and in the coming years to see Victoria’s budget measured by how investments enhance well-being and equity in our community.
In the meantime, in the City’s recently adopted 2021 budget, Council has made an effort to focus investments on enhancing the well-being of Victoria residents and helping our beloved local businesses recover from the pandemic. I’ve pulled out some of the key highlights to share. Additional background information and the detailed five-year financial plan and background can be found here.
Infrastructure and Economic Recovery
Timely investments in the maintenance, repair and improvement of City infrastructure support community safety, avoid the need for more expensive costs for taxpayers in the future, and attract businesses and industry as they look for locations to invest. Infrastructure investments also create jobs. Some of the city’s key projects – like the bike network– are undertaken by private sector contractors which employ local people.
In 2021, the City will invest $24.5 million to improve city streets, fill potholes, upgrade crosswalks and sidewalks, and undertake traffic calming projects to make the city more walkable and safer for people walking and cycling. An investment of $33.7 million will continue the renewal of essential underground infrastructure including aging water mains, sanitary sewers and storm drains.
Economic recovery and resiliency are also key in this year’s budget. The Build Back Victoria initiative is a cornerstone of the City’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan to support businesses in every neighbourhood. Within weeks of launching last spring, dozens of patios and retail “flex spaces” had sprung up across the city, yoga and fitness studios had moved classes outside in parks. We know we’ll see even more creative use of public space this summer.
The City will also allocate more than $459,000 to support economic development and recovery to implement the Victoria 3.0 – Recovery Reinvention Resilience – 2020-2041 the City’s economic action plan. Key projects for 2021 include work with stakeholders to create an Oceans Future Hub, taking shape as the Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST), and continuing to make it easier for new and existing businesses to do business in Victoria.
The South Island Prosperity Partnership will receive close to $220,000 to support their work collaborating with government, First Nations and private sector partners to accelerate recovery and build a resilient, diversified economy on the South Island.
For the first time in anyone’s memory, we’ve also lowered business taxes. For every $1 homeowners pay in property taxes, businesses contribute $3.32. Businesses – particularly local retailers, restaurants, arts and culture and tourism related businesses – continue to struggle with the fall out of the pandemic. If Council had adhered to its tax policy, this would have meant that this year businesses would pay and increased $3.59 for every $1 that residences pay. To support businesses during this unprecedented year, Council decreased business taxes.
Health and Well-Being
Providing outdoor spaces for people to enjoy and stay active, but apart, has never been more important. Parks, recreation and facilities will see more than $24 million in 2021 to maintain and enhance the city’s 137 parks and open spaces, gardens, community centres and other facilities.
In addition to the $3.8 million funded last year to design and build a new bike and skate park in Topaz Park, the City is investing $4.5 million to replace the artificial turf field at Topaz Park this year. Further improvements include $600,000 to replace the playground equipment at Stadacona Park and $85,000 will fund preliminary design work to install new lighting at Vic West Skate Park. An investment of $2.8 million will substantially improve and expand the waterfront Songhees Park on the west side of the Johnson Street Bridge.
This year will also see the design for the new sč̓əmaθən Peter Pollen Waterfront Park, improvements to Pemberton Park, and expansion of the Banfield Park dock for public swimming this summer.
Victoria’s neighbourhood associations, community associations and seniors centres will receive $1.5 million in funding to deliver important services and programs to residents and help make the community healthier and age-friendly for seniors.
To make Victoria more accessible and inclusive, the City is investing up to $40,000 for the development of a Welcoming City Strategy, as well as allocating funding to establish a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion with three full-time staff. Having a staff position in both community planning and recreation services divisions will embed equity in policies, programs and services, advance the removal of systemic barriers and help to make City Hall, city services and the community as a whole more welcoming and inclusive for the increasing diversity of residents that call Victoria home.
Also, in line with Victoria’s Strategic Plan, the City will continue to seek deeper and more engagement with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, including with both hereditary and elected chiefs. The City Family will continue to guide the City’s reconciliation work. As part of this work, $37,500 has been allocated to scope out potential future positions to advance a new Indigenous Relations and Elders in Residence Function in 2022. The Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues series will continue once large-scale public events can be held again and the City will support and help with the organization of Orange Shirt Day this September.
As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, there is much more work to be done on affordable housing. While cities aren’t responsible for housing, the City of Victoria does what it can as a junior partner to the federal and provincial governments to assist with housing creation. This year we are allocating $660,000 to the Housing Reserve Fund which helps to leverage investment in affordable housing from the provincial and federal governments.
We are also continuing to accelerate the implementation of the Victoria Housing Strategy to increase housing choice and affordability for families. This includes non-market housing, affordable rentals, market rental housing and affordable or entry-level home ownership.
In response to the housing crisis in Victoria, the City has created an expanded set of housing targets to meet growing demand and catch up to the already existing need. Supported in part by the Victoria Housing Reserve Fund of more than $3.9 million, the plan is to partner with senior government and non-profit housing providers to create approximately 1,450 new affordable non-market homes over the next six years, as part of a total of 3,900 new homes across all housing types. This is an ambitious goal and it’s going to take Council saying “yes” more often than “no” to housing of all sorts in all neighbourhoods.
Climate Leadership and Zero Waste
Having declared a climate emergency in 2019, the City of Victoria is committed to taking serious climate action to reduce carbon pollution by 80 per cent and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.
Through its Climate Leadership Plan, the City will invest up to an additional $350,000 in 2021 to top up the CleanBC’s Better Homes and Home Renovation Rebate Program, encouraging homeowners to transition from oil and gas to electric heat pump. If you are heating your home with oil or natural gas and want a substantial rebate to convert to a heat pump, now is the time. Details are here.
Climate action will also include the continued transitioning of the City’s fleet to electric vehicles, in addition to $175,000 for public EV charging stations. If you are interested in swapping in your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle, it’s also a good time to do that with substantial provincial and federal rebates totaling up to $14,000 . More details here.
Last year saw the introduction of new zero waste stations across the city. This year we will invest an additional $95,000 to install more stations in high pedestrian traffic areas like the new Dallas Road Waterfront Walkway.
Unrelated to Budget: Dose of Inspiration / Spot of Grace
My Sunday blog posts get mixed reviews, particularly when I make attempts to call us together, recognize our common humanity, our shared purpose, etc. Some people write and say they’re moved to tears, others say that they don’t need all this philosophizing garbage from the mayor. This week, one of the latter asked me what my “Sunday sermon” was going to be about. I told her I was writing about the 2021 budget! But just before sitting down at my computer to work, I happened to re-read this from Rachel Naomi’ Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. It moved me, so I thought it would share it with you:
“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologists call it the Soul, Jung calls it The Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qualb, and Jesus calls it The Centre of Our Love.
“To know this sport of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. We each live in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.”
– Mark Nepo cited in Kitchen Table Wisdom