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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Donnelly: Stronger Vancouver has risks

Strategic initiative needs taxpayer scrutiny soon

By Ann Donnelly
Published: August 4, 2019, 6:01am

Stronger Vancouver. We all want that. The thought is as comforting as slipping into a warm bath. And yet, the city’s long-term strategic initiative, marketed under the term Stronger Vancouver, may cost more than taxpayers and businesses can afford without satisfying their need for more law enforcement. The sweeping vision of Stronger Vancouver cannot just be waved through without a critical look.

In 2016, after much public discussion, the City Council adopted a six-year strategic plan, including the need for a “police resourcing package.” Stronger Vancouver was the outgrowth of this process. It is noteworthy that more police resources were at the center of Stronger Vancouver’s early history.

To form recommendations, the City Council appointed an Executive Sponsors Council of community leaders from various fields, including architects, parks and recreation, nonprofit philanthropy, health care, and the Hispanic community, co-chaired by former Mayor Tim Leavitt and Tim Schauer, CEO of public works consultant Mackay & Sposito. Councilor Linda Glover and City Manager Eric Holmes were appointed as nonvoting members.

The small business community did not have a specific representative, nor did the taxpaying community or law enforcement, though all had opportunities to comment.

Fast forward to May 2019, and Stronger Vancouver is advancing toward its “final package” of recommendations from the ESC and then to council action. As summarized by Holmes in an upbeat and aspirational May 6 memo to the City Council, “The ESC recommendation is a substantial and integrated package of projects, programs and new revenues that are focused on advancing a realization of the vision for Vancouver in a stable, sustainable manner through 2030.” Holmes emphasizes that the recommendations constitute a “starting place” from which to work.

More than 35 projects and 25 programs are recommended in the areas of “Public Safety, Economic Vitality, and Parks and Recreation.” It notably does not promise that more police will be hired, a consistently stated priority for neighborhoods.

Sparks fly

Among its objectives, Stronger Vancouver promises “stability and predictability to taxpayers,” but such a worthy goal may prove unrealistic. Stronger Vancouver (as clearly stated in the Holmes memo’s final pages) relies upon increases in some combination of lifting the levy lid, Business and Occupation Tax, utility taxes, admissions taxes, and impact fees. If lifting the levy lid is selected, voters will find the increase on a ballot as early as November 2019 or as late as November 2020.

At least one 2019 candidate for City Council — Jeanne Stewart, Position 6 — believes Stronger Vancouver will raise taxes and fees unsustainably over time without any firm commitment to fund more police. At a candidate forum on July 19, Stewart and Diana Perez, also a candidate for Position 6 and a member of the Executive Sponsors Council, differed sharply on the issue.

Following the forum, Stewart explained her concerns to several questioners, at which point, in a heated exchange, Perez stated that Stewart, former city and county council member experienced as an auditor and accountant, was misleading voters. Stewart took issue, citing her scrutiny of city budget projections, attendance at council presentations on Stronger Vancouver, and previous City Council experience.

Sparks flying between candidates demonstrate the value of elections, to hash out differing viewpoints of public spending plans in time to modify them. In the case of Stronger Vancouver, taxpayer scrutiny is needed soon, before Stronger Vancouver is as unstoppable as a Vancouver skateboarder hurtling down C Street.

Families and businesses — the true economic strength of Vancouver — are faced with rising taxes and fees at the state, county, and city levels. The current version of Stronger Vancouver risks pushing some taxpayers past the point of no return.

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