COVID-19 has hit our city hard. We can see it in our struggling businesses. We can see it in the streets and in our parks. We can see it in the faces of our residents. I thank everyone for all they are doing to keep us all safe and our economy moving.
COVID-19 has also hit our city finances hard. We’ve had $13 million in increased costs due to the pandemic while losing $85 million in revenues. We took a further hit of $41 million when the Province shorted Vancouver its per capita share of federal Safe Restart funding.
This all adds up to $139 million in losses, equivalent to a 17 percent increase in property taxes – which is obviously out of the question. It’s not the type of hit we can solve with a few simple changes. We laid off 1,800 staff, deferred key capital projects, and management and Council took a 10 percent pay cut. But it still is not enough. That’s what makes Budget 2021 so difficult.
Most of the over 200 people who registered to speak to the budget and the hundreds more who wrote in wanted to discuss policing, and it’s understandable why. The police budget has increased from around $200 million in 2010 to $340 million in 2020 and makes up over 20 percent of the City’s operating costs. While many speaking to council want to increase the police budget, many also call for deep cuts. Tackling crime and keeping people safe is important, but so is the imperative of criminal justice reform.
Let’s be clear. I am already reforming how police services are delivered in Vancouver. Policing in B.C. is provincially regulated, so I was glad the provincial government listened when last June, I called on them to review the outdated Police Act to address systemic racism and other matters. I was also glad Council joined me in calling for an end to the discriminatory practice of street checks and unanimously backed my plan to work with the Federal Government to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs.
At the same time, COVID-19 has brought an increase in violent crime in some neighbourhoods and genuine feelings of a decline in personal safety by many residents. Council has been tackling these issues, passing a number of motions to work with community and businesses to de-escalate conflict and to coordinate work across all levels of government to address mental illness and addiction. We acknowledge there is more work to be done, and it requires partnerships with community, other levels of government and the Vancouver Police Department.
In terms of the budget, here’s my approach. Early this year, I brought forward a motion to limit our property tax increase to no more than five percent. This will be tough to do, considering all the COVID-19 impacts, but I am committed to this cap. In terms of police, we need to hold the budget at its current 2020 level while at the same time moving ahead with reform. But we also need to use any available funds we have to make key investments in overdose response, street cleaning and sanitation, homelessness services, and housing – the kinds of responses that, if successfully delivered, helps redirect those in need away from the criminal justice system to services that will help them receive care and improve safety.
Budgets are always about choices, but in this strangest of all years, we need to make choices that support Vancouver through COVID-19, protect our most vulnerable neighbours, increase residents’ sense of security, and support small businesses. That’s what I hope Council will agree and continue to strive to make Vancouver a city that works for everyone.
Mayor of Vancouver