Vancouver City Council approves $1.6-billion operating budget for 2021

Vancouver Police Chief and Vancouver Police Board express disappointment and concern

VANCOUVER City Council has approved a $1.6 billion operating budget for 2021 that is lower than the City’s original planned budget for 2020, and reflects a property tax increase of five per cent.

The approved budget allows for regular operations to continue, including additional costs and some operating adjustments due to the pandemic, addresses critical risks and service gaps, and covers the City’s annual inflationary fixed cost increases.

As the approved 2021 Budget is lower than the 2020 Budget by $19 million or roughly one per cent, some planned initiatives will need to be deferred and service levels for the public will be also impacted.

The five per cent tax increase results in the following average property tax increase amounts for 2021 (based on median property values in each category) after adjusting for the impact of the Council-directed tax shift of .5 per cent property tax share from non-residential to residential classes:

· $146 for a single-family home (assessed at $1.6 million)

· $64 for a condo or strata unit (assessed at $688,000)

· $166 for a business property (assessed at $1 million)

· $104 for a residential property overall (assessed at $1.1 million).

The City noted that the actual tax bill for each property owner will be different than the above average amounts, and will depend on the assessed value of the property, as well as the relative assessed value of that property to others in the same area. These estimates also reflect the City of Vancouver portion of taxes only – a property owner’s tax bill also includes utility fees, provincial school taxes, and taxes levied by other taxing authorities, including Translink, Metro Vancouver, BC Assessment, and the Municipal Finance Authority.

The City said the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the its finances in 2020 including a projected $85 million in reduced revenue at year end, $13 million in additional costs for the emergency response to support the community, and increased costs for regular operations during the pandemic such as personal protective equipment for frontline workers. The City expects to draw down its revenue stabilization reserve by approximately $34 million to temporarily offset the 2020 budget shortfall.

City of Vancouver revenues are not anticipated to return to pre-2020 levels next year, and draws on the stabilization reserve will again be required in 2021.

VANCOUVER Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a statement: “Budget 2021 is a direct response to the challenges COVID-19, focusing on and prioritizing services for residents and businesses under stress.

“Despite nearly $139 million in pandemic-related losses, Budget 2021 makes key investments to support residents through COVID-19 while keeping property tax increases to five percent, and holding our largest line item, the police budget, to 2020 levels.

“More funding for critical areas like street cleaning, sanitation, community policing, overdose response, supports for small businesses, housing, and homelessness will help our residents and businesses weather a difficult time while setting our entire city up for a stronger post-pandemic recovery.

“I am grateful to the hundreds of residents who spoke or wrote to Council, to our dedicated staff for the countless hours that went into preparing this budget, and to all of Council for their hard work and energy.”

Chief Constable Adam Palmer Photo by Chandra Bodalia

VANCOUVER Police Chief Constable, Adam Palmer, issued the following statement in response to Vancouver City Council’s decision to reduce the Vancouver Police Department’s net budget by $5.7 million for 2021:

“I am disappointed with today’s budget vote. I am concerned this decision will directly impact public safety in Vancouver and the wellness of our officers.

“The Vancouver Police Board requested $322 million for 2021 to maintain current staffing and public safety levels. City Council voted today to approve a budget of $316 million. This means 61 fewer police recruits will be hired to meet public safety challenges in 2021.

“Some elected officials have tried to position this as a status quo budget by holding the VPD at 2020 funding levels. This is simply not true. Maintaining 2020 budget levels leaves the VPD with a $5.7 million shortfall to meet fixed cost obligations.

“I want to thank the many residents and business owners who took the time to reach out to the VPD, Vancouver Police Board, and City Council to express their support for public safety in Vancouver.”

BARJ Dhahan, Vice Chair, Vancouver Police Board, said in a statement: “The Vancouver Police Board (the Board) has serious concerns regarding the decision … by Vancouver City Council to cut the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) 2021 operating budget.

“Council’s decision was framed as maintaining the 2020 budget, which is not the case, and actually results in a $5.7 million shortfall.  This decision did not account for any fixed cost obligations in the budget, and this cut means that the VPD will lose an equivalent of 61 officers (through positions not being filled, including the replacement of retiring officers). A shortfall of this magnitude is extremely challenging, in particular during a global pandemic, where the police department is facing unprecedented stress in ensuring public safety in Vancouver.

“The Board understands the financial pressures that the City is facing, and the complexity in navigating competing priorities, and we hope for a continued collaborative dialogue. The primary responsibility of the Police Board is to ensure public safety for all of those who live, visit, and work in Vancouver and Council’s budget cut makes this difficult to achieve.

“The Board recommended budget was developed relative to the needs of the people of Vancouver regarding public safety, with Council priorities in mind. It was necessary to maintain the current staffing and service levels.  As a result of this budget cut, VPD staffing levels will decline to a level experienced over a decade ago, at a time when there has been a double-digit increase in population, growing crime severity, and added complexity of investigations.  The Board has grave concerns over the resulting impact of this cut, and what it will mean for the people of Vancouver.

“The Board, as the independent governing authority of the VPD, and a separate legal entity from the City, will be reviewing what Council’s decision means to policing as an essential and core service.  At this time, the Board is carefully considering the implications of this cut and addressing possible next steps.

“VPD members both on the streets and behind the scenes, compromise their wellbeing every day to protect public safety, and the livability of Vancouver for people and businesses.  The Board supports the VPD leadership and its sworn and civilian staff, and appreciates their dedication to serving this City, particularly during these uncertain and challenging times.”

ALL four NPA City Councillors – Sarah Kirby-Yung, Melissa De Genova, Lisa Dominato and Colleen Hardwick – voted against the City’s 2021 Operating Budget, noting that it’s “a budget that includes an onerous 5% property tax increase for the City’s residents and small businesses to shoulder in the midst of a pandemic” and that the “City’s 2021 Operating Budget also locks in the worrying trend to higher and higher tax increases seen under this Council and places Vancouver on an unsustainable fiscal path that threatens the city’s post-COVID economic recovery.” 
Among the reasons cited by the NPA City Councillors for voting against the 2021 Operating Budget is a concern that the Budget relies too heavily on depleting the City’s Revenue Stabilization Reserve to support spending; an action that will effectively leave the City’s reserve fund empty and require even higher tax increases in the coming recovery years.
They said that as noted in the 2021 Budget, $34 million already had to be drawn from the City’s Revenue Stabilization Reserve this year on an emergency basis to rebalance the 2020 Budget, despite a variety of facility closures, associated staff layoffs, and other savings measures. The 2021 Operating Budget will draw another $57 million from the reserve to offset expected 2021 revenue losses of $60 million. This means up to $90 million will need to be raised in future years to replenish the reserve – either through an additional 2% tax hike every year over a three-year period (or equivalent service reductions) or through a 1% additional tax each year for five years.
The NPA City Councillors also expressed concern that the budget lacks a strategy to address important pandemic and recovery priorities and the focus needed to guide the City’s actions and support residents and small businesses toward a successful post-COVID recovery. Instead, the 2021 budget is based on an across-the-board approach with modest 1% reductions in all areas rather than focusing on what is most important right now.
Overall, the NPA Caucus members believe the path to recovery during this unprecedented time of challenge and uncertainty is to focus City resources and spending on retaining quality core services, to zero in on improving housing, homelessness, and affordability, and to facilitate small business recovery.