In the wake of a decision by city council on Tuesday to reduce services and keep city tax rates low in the coming years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a city councillor said he expects tough decisions ahead.
Coun. Mike O’Reilly said any service reductions or cuts made in the future will be heavily debated by council because councillors have their own interests and passions.
“It’s going to be debate after debate after debate,” O’Reilly said.
It has already started. On Tuesday, after budget talks, council debated the merits of an electric vehicle and electric bicycle strategy that had been in the works for some time prior to the pandemic.
Costs attached to some of the strategy action items caused councillors’ eyebrows to rise, given perspective from the previous budget conversations. Council ultimately decided to move ahead with the strategy, but to only pursue goals identified for next year that do not cost anything.
Some examples of strategy initiatives that do not require additional city funding include amendments to the the city’s zoning bylaw to require electric vehicle and e-bike parking in new developments, educating apartment and workplace managers and owners of the benefits of electric retrofitting, adoption of an electric-first procurement policy to prioritize procuring electric vehicles and equipment and advocacy to the province, federal government and utilities to electrify commercial fleets and transit.
Mayor Ken Christian and councillors O’Reilly, Dale Bass, Sadie Hunter, Bill Sarai and Denis Walsh supported a motion by Hunter to approve such action items in 2021.
Councillors Dieter Dudy, Kathy Sinclair and Arjun Singh were opposed.
Singh argued the city could use $700,000 available in climate action reserve funds in 2021, noting government funding opportunities may be missed should the city not have climate action projects ready.
With council’s decision, investment into the strategy won’t effectively come until at least 2022. Some of the items identified in the strategy with a budget and time frame that includes 2021 are a pilot project of financial incentives for EV-ready retrofits in existing multi-family buildings and workplaces ($200,000), investment in city-owned public charging ($400,000 to $600,000), a city workplace charging pilot project for employees at city facilities ($150,000) and adding e-bikes to the city’s fleet ($50,000).
Similar decisions are expected to be delayed going forward as council pinches pennies amid the pandemic.
On Tuesday, council voted unanimously to make cuts in order to keep tax rates as close to a zero per cent increase — effectively, no increase — as possible in the coming years, beginning in 2021.
The city’s pocketbook has been hit by lost revenues and increased expenses during the pandemic, a public health crisis that has also caused the global economy to tailspin.
Asked what services he would like to see reduced, O’Reilly said he hopes capital project deferrals will make up the bulk of the city’s savings. He said the city still needs to maintain and repair its assets, noting those projects won’t be going away any time soon. For example, if a city facility’s roof is leaking, it needs to get fixed, he said. However, O’Reilly said he would like to see the “nice-to-haves” postponed, though no specific projects were noted.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the list,” O’Reilly said of anticipated service reductions coming in the next budget cycle.