The COVID-19 pandemic. Provincial sales tax. Seniors’ housing.
As issues shape up little more than a week into the provincial election campaign, the mayors of B.C.’s largest cities are looking to put the challenges impacting their communities front and centre.
“I don’t care if you’re Green, Liberal or [New] Democrat,” Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian said. “I just want to have some of those issues we have as a city talked about on the campaign trail.”
On Wednesday (Sept. 30), the BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus — which was created amid the pandemic and includes mayors of Kamloops, Kelowna, Prince George, Vancouver, Victoria and others representing B.C.’s 13 largest cities — released a discussion paper putting out a call to B.C. political parties to address municipal challenges with mental health and substance use, affordable housing and transit, all of which fall under provincial purview. It also calls for municipal finance reform.
“Property tax, it’s been around for a long, long time, but it’s a bit archaic in terms of its ability to address things that aren’t property related,” Christian said, noting it covers garbage, sewer, curb and water for homes. “That’s OK if that’s all we were doing as a city. But now, we’re addressing issues related to housing, we’re addressing issues related to recreation, we’re addressing issues related to climate change. All that is getting downloaded onto us. They’re downloading the responsibility for a lot of these things without the funding.”
The mayors’ caucus is calling for a review of the municipal-provincial financial relationship, specifically asking for a broader range of predictable and reliable funding to address financial pressures. Kamloops South-Thompson B.C. Liberal candidate Todd Stone agreed additional responsibilities have been layered onto core responsibilities of communities.
“We very much do believe it’s a worth conversation to have with local governments, about are there opportunities to modernize the funding mechanisms of local government to better ensure that local governments can deliver the services that are increasingly expected of them?” he said. “Flip side of the coin, perhaps there are some areas that the province needs to stop expecting local governments to shoulder the financial burden on and deliver it at the provincial level, as has always been the case.”
Stone pointed to the consequence of insufficient supports for people in need, including increased crime that leads to higher police costs born by local taxpayers. Policing is the city’s single-largest cost.
“There’s a very important discussion that needs to happen there, as to what really should be the responsibility of the local government,” Stone said. “What are those areas of responsibility that the province is reneging on its responsibilities and how can all of this be supported with the financial resources necessary?”
MENTAL-HEALTH, SUBSTANCE-USE, TREATMENT
Christian said B.C. mayors met during the COVID-19 pandemic and realized their communities shared common challenges, issues they now want to see canvassed during the election campaign.
Specifically for Kamloops, Christian has a long wish list when it comes to issues involving mental health, substance use and treatment. He wants to see discussion about better detox and treatment options for adults and youth, a sobering centre to take the sobering process out of jail cells, a legalized drug supply and secure facilities for people on the street with mental illness.
The mayors’ discussion paper notes more homelessness, encampments, stigma, anger in communities and business break-ins. It calls on parties to commit to expanding substance-use and mental-health treatment and recovery, make permanent a recent public health order expanding prescription of pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply and consider alternative approaches to respond to mental-health and substance-use calls on a 24/7 basis.
Kamloops South-Thompson Green candidate Dan Hines said his party supports making permanent the health order to allow more health-care professionals to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives. He supports decriminalization of drugs, as does his party, though he noted it ultimately lies within scope of the federal government.
“Safe supply is really a big piece of that as far as mitigating the harm,” Hines said. “That piece, we could work on immediately. There has been some talk and some movement that way.”
Stone said his party, if elected, would increase mental-health, addiction and recovery supports, with an announcement pending. He said supportive housing is an important first step, but needs to be paired with supports to help people get better. If re-elected MLA, Stone said he would advocate for a sobering centre in Kamloops and an additional nurse for the Car 40 program. He said he recently presented a petition in the legislature to expand the Car 40 program, which sees a Kamloops Mountie and nurse paired to respond to mental-health calls.
“We know that mental-health challenges, that addiction challenges people have take place all hours of the day, every day of the week,” he said. “We believe those kinds of programs really work and require additional resources to expand.”
Meanwhile, Christian said the city is facing revenue shortfalls resulting from a “drastic” transit ridership drop amid the pandemic. He said 43 per cent of the city’s funding comes from user fees and the city is, as a result, losing money with lower ridership. He would like to see a more sustainable model for transit funding. In addition, he said HandyDart is under-serviced in Kamloops, as well as in other communities in British Columbia.
Stone said he hears often from constituents about insufficient HandyDart service.
“Government needs to step up in a bigger way to invest in additional transit hours, both conventional hours and HandyDart,” he said.
Kamloops-North Thompson NDP candidate Sadie Hunter is familiar with the challenges, having just stepped aside from her councillor role to run for provincial office. She said she would also advocate for increased HandyDart services, if elected MLA.
“I advocated loudly and consistently for increased HandyDart hours,” she said of her role as city councillor. “In fact, that was one of the resolutions I brought forward as an amendment, was to ask for another HandyDart bus be put in circulation during the next round of capital investments in the local transit system.”
As for housing, Christian said he would like to see the process to apply for subsidy through BC Housing streamlined, noting it takes several months for applications to be approved. In addition, he said, young people in B.C. cannot afford to purchase a home. He wants to know what the next provincial government will do to lower housing prices.
Though his party is expected to release its ideas around affordable housing in about a week’s time, Hines said the Greens would expand on measures put in place by the NDP government to cool the housing market. He said the market escalated out of reach of young middle-class families trying to purchase their first home. He also worries about renters, workers making minimum wage and those receiving income assistance.
“We really do see housing as a human right,” Hines said. “It’s not an idea that housing and property is open for kind of rampant speculation, foreign ownership. That considered to be solely in terms of investments and not as an essential part of what it means to be cared for and involved in a society.”
Hunter said the NDP’s speculation tax has gone a long way, but argued more needs to be done, including working with university to help it borrow to build student housing, which would take pressure off of the rental market.