Sunday, February 28, 2021
Feb. 28, 2021

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City council reviews A Stronger Vancouver plan

Outreach to residents, businesses among concerns

By , Columbian staff writer

The $30 million package of new programs and taxes titled A Stronger Vancouver isn’t yet fully baked.

That was the main takeaway from a four-hour workshop with the Vancouver City Council, where councilors and City Manager Eric Holmes started the enormous task of parsing through the sweeping package of recommendations presented by the Stronger Vancouver Executive Sponsor Council last month.

“Everything is still on the table and open to feedback,” Councilor Erik Paulsen stressed.

Comprised of around 60 items, the Stronger Vancouver plan is a comprehensive look at how to manage the city’s explosive growth. As written, it would collect an additional $30.1 million in city revenue spread out through property taxes, business taxes and other miscellaneous fees.

The plan would then allocate those new revenues to services and projects that otherwise start to strain under a rising population — parks, homeless services, first responders and developing areas of the city like the Fourth Plain corridor and Heights District.

Now, councilors are trying to figure out their priorities — whittling down the list of recommendations and deciding which ones to put up for further public feedback.

The challenge lies in the expansive, comprehensive nature of the package, already cut down from hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pie-in-the-sky proposals into a more realistic set of projects and revenues, Holmes said.

Still, the Stronger Vancouver plan is huge, and would bump up the city’s annual operating budget by about 5 percent. Working through the whole thing and ultimately taking action on the package will take the council at least until October.

It could take longer, depending on the extent of public outreach the city decides to pursue. At the workshop, city leaders were in agreement that there had to be further opportunity for Vancouver’s residents and business owners to comment on the proposals. But there was some debate over what form and scope those opportunities should take.

As Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told the council, there’s a limit to what the average resident and business owner can reasonably be expected to form an educated opinion on, and 60 proposals is certainly above that limit.

“We can’t ask the citizens to play what-if games with 60 different projects,” McEnerny-Ogle said.

It’s up to the elected figures to trim that list down, she continued, finding points of agreement and points where further public feedback would help guide them toward better decisions.

“I think there are some things we can refine now, some things we can all agree on,” McEnerny-Ogle said. She cited the rebuilding of the city’s Operations Center as a point of consensus.

Councilor Bill Turlay suggested a citywide town hall, where residents can ask the city council questions about A Stronger Vancouver one by one. Fellow Councilor Ty Stober pushed for more public outreach earlier, while the plan is still taking form.

“I think there’s benefit to that in the long term,” Stober said.

Holmes put forward a tentative schedule on when A Stronger Vancouver might be put to a council vote. His timeline would put the city on track to pass a resolution in October, though depending on the amount of time the council wants to devote to public feedback, that date could be pushed later.

What would this plan buy, and how?

The whole Stronger Vancouver process started back in 2017 to help resolve the city’s approaching structural deficit. Vancouver’s staff and spending levels had been slashed aggressively during the Great Recession, and as the city recovered economically and people and businesses started to flood back in, services couldn’t keep up.

So the city tasked a 10-person Executive Sponsors Council, which included members from businesses, parks and government, to come up with a series of proposals that would keep the city in the black and help it thrive into the future.

The ESC presented its slate of recommendations on April 15 after two years of meetings and community surveys.

Among other things, the Stronger Vancouver draft would provide funds to:

• Replace the Operations Center.

• Rebuild two fire stations and renovate three.

• Build nine new parks on city property, improve 14 existing parks and redesign two others.

• Increase investments in the Fourth Plain corridor and the Heights District.

• Establish a citywide culture, arts and heritage program.

• Expand services for the homeless at the Vancouver Navigation Center.

• Update fire safety requirements to include sprinklers in all new buildings.

• Improve pedestrian and cyclist safety.

To pay for all that, the ESC recommended a three-way split to raise revenue: $9.7 million from an increase in property taxes, $9.7 million from higher business taxes and $10.7 million from other miscellaneous taxes and fees.

So far the most controversial proposal in A Stronger Vancouver is the reinstatement of a business and occupation tax, forecasted to collect around $5.5 million per year. Vancouver hasn’t collected a B&O tax since 2002. Last month a coalition of local businesses drafted a letter to city leaders calling the reinstatement of a B&O tax “regressive, unfair, (and) anti-competitive.”