Stronger Vancouver. Now that’s a name we’ve not heard in a long time.
Or maybe it just seems that way because the last time the Vancouver City Council publicly discussed the Stronger Vancouver plan — an ambitious, overarching proposal to bolster programs and services to keep up with the city’s growing population, expected to cost around $30 million per year — was in March 2020.
Circumstances have since shifted.
“It’s been almost 18 months since the city council last talked about the Stronger Vancouver initiative,” City Manager Eric Holmes said in the council’s most recent workshop. “I want to recognize that changes have occurred in our policymaking environment.”
The big change, of course, is COVID-19, and the way it transformed the economic and political landscape of the city. The pandemic laid bare structural inequalities among residents, and wreaked havoc on the stability of many employees and employers.
Homelessness and the need for affordable housing became more urgent and visible since the start of the pandemic, Holmes continued. And the city’s parks became even more vital during lockdown, as residents sought ways to socialize and get outdoors while minimizing the risk of transmission.
There’s also the related consideration of how to spend new federal funds linked to pandemic recovery. The city received $32.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, a lump sum that comes with very few restrictions on how it must be spent.
What is Stronger Vancouver?
Stronger Vancouver, as it was initially developed, is hard to define. According to Holmes, that’s part of the problem.
“We were on a path that brought together a significantly complex, multifaceted decision,” Holmes said. “It made it challenging to articulate with clarity what the cause and effect would be.”
In a nutshell, the Stronger Vancouver initiative rose from the realization that the city’s budget was structurally deficient: as the city’s population continued to grow rapidly, the existing levers for raising revenues and disseminating services (think police, fire, utilities and parks) simply could not keep up.
The city would need a new budget structure, and it would need to think big. A volunteer committee — the Stronger Vancouver Executive Sponsor Council — was appointed in 2017, and the 10 members spent two years poring over the city’s needs and wants for the upcoming decade, conducting extensive outreach with community members. They also looked at potential ways to pay for it.
What was eventually presented to the city council in 2019 was a plan encompassing around 60 items. Some proposals were capital projects — one-time expenses to build something new — while others were ongoing service programs, which would continue to need some sort of revenue into the future.
The list included a plan to replace the Operations Center, rebuild two fire stations and renovate three, build nine new parks and improve 16 others, increase investments in the Fourth Plain corridor and the Heights District and establish a citywide culture, arts and heritage program, among other proposals.
To foot the bill, the Executive Sponsor Council suggested a three-way split to avoid overburdening any particular kind of taxpayer: a third could be covered through an increase in property taxes, another third through raising business taxes, and the remainder from other miscellaneous taxes and fees.
COVID-19 hit before the plan could take any concrete steps forward. However, a few time-sensitive items moved ahead separate from the broader package: since that last March 2020 meeting, city councilors have signed off on building a new Operations Center and a replacement for Fire Station 3. They also implemented a 0.1 percent sales tax to help fund affordable housing projects, expected to raise around $4.5 million annually.
But now, looking at the broader package, Holmes pointed out that a lot of it may not apply in a drastically altered world.
He also suggested breaking up the plan into a series of decisions — the city council could tackle one big priority in 2022, and another in 2023, onward through the decade. That could help alleviate the information fatigue caused by trying to communicate 60 different proposals to voters at once.
“We were going to take one action that would then be implemented over a 10-year period. And then immediately, I think, the subsequent year to 16 months illustrated that we live in an unpredictable time,” Holmes said.
During the recent workshop, councilors agreed they’d need to go back to the drawing board on the Stronger Vancouver plan.
“All of that was valuable, and I don’t want to lose any of that,” said Mayor Pro Tem Linda Glover, referring to the work spent on the original Stronger Vancouver package. “But the truth is, it is more complex. So many things have happened so quickly.”
However, they also urged staff to act fast to revise the plan for post-pandemic circumstances. The federal funds — which must be allocated no later than 2024 — play a role in that urgency.
“When we talk about timing, we do have the revenue coming in from the ARPA,” Councilor Sarah Fox said. “That we have to make a decision on quickly, as well. Having a sense of how we want to spend those funds in the next six months would also put me at ease.”