Stronger Vancouver is an ambitious proposal created over two years with much citizen input. The extensive recommendation, developed by a 10-member citizen committee and presented to the city council in 2019, provides a valuable framework for future discussions about how to build a sustainably vibrant city.
Despite the benefits of that framework, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made clear that the plan must be broken into smaller, manageable pieces. The pandemic and the economic chaos it has created demonstrate the need for flexibility in how city government collects and spends taxpayer funds when the future is uncertain.
“We were going to take one action that would then be implemented over a 10-year period,” City Manager Eric Holmes reminded city council members during a recent workshop. “And then immediately, I think the subsequent year to 16 months illustrated that we live in an unpredictable time.”
The genesis of the Stronger Vancouver proposal was a desire to prepare a growing city for the future. The citizen committee devised a plan that includes more than 50 items, ranging from one-time expenses such as reconstructing fire stations and building new parks to ongoing services that require dedicated funding streams.
In total, the proposal would increase taxes to residents and visitors by about $30 million a year. The citizen committee suggested a three-way split for raising that revenue: An increase in property taxes; increased business taxes; and various other taxes and fees.
Nobody likes higher taxes, but city officials have a strong argument for why increases are necessary.
State law prohibits municipal governments from raising property tax collections by more than 1 percent a year (increases may be banked, allowing for a jump of more than 1 percent the following year). That limits the ways government may raise revenue, and the 1 percent limitation does not keep up with inflation, which gives the city less purchasing power every year. The result is a structural deficit, with expenses increasing more quickly than revenue.
Many residents likely appreciate the idea of limiting government spending, but the city is in the job of providing services that enhance the quality of life for all. For example, the approved two-year budget for 2021-22 includes $237 million for basic public safety (police and fire), $45 million for two major street funds and $36 million for parks and recreation. Those are the kind of amenities that not only enhance our quality of life but attract new businesses and visitors.
The structural deficit requires some forward thinking on the part of city leaders. On top of that, the city received $32.6 million in COVID relief from the federal government — money that must be allocated by 2024 and creates a sense of urgency.
That is what led to discussion about the Stronger Vancouver proposal for the first time since the pandemic arrived in early 2020. While recognizing that the situation has changed, city leaders can and should use the earlier proposal as a starting point.
“All of that was valuable, and I don’t want to lose any of that,” Councilor Linda Glover said. “But the truth is, it is more complex. So many things have happened so quickly.”
Indeed. Stronger Vancouver has some worthwhile ideas, but retaining them as a package would not be sensible. Items should be considered separately, with leaders using the strongest pieces to construct the sturdiest possible city.