City budget blind to COVID business, taxpayer revenue realities

I don’t own the business I manage, but most everyone who manages has had to act like an owner since last March. It’s been a wholly serious time of salvaging.

In our case, we cut discretionary costs, rolled back salaries, eliminated positions, stopped staging events, provided discounts for our clients, worked longer hours and tried to find the route out of the disaster that crept up and struck overnight and has hovered ever since.

Not one element of our business didn’t come under the microscope for evaluation, then or since. Not once when we dealt with the community did we think about placing a further burden on them. In other words, even though assistance was much welcomed, we saw our house as ours to get in order.

When talking to other managers and owners, I find they’re not looking to take advantage of other operations, either. They’re lending support where they can. They’re offering advice and collaboration. They’re stating their loyalty in clear terms by buying locally and preserving relationships. They’re economizing so they can survive and rethinking so they can sustain.

What emerged more strongly is the importance of connectedness and alliances to forge through this mess of constant setbacks and stalls. It has been messy, it has thrown off all sorts of ambitious plans, it has been enervating even when it seems exciting to re-engineer. And we have had to admit that some business we lost will not return in these circumstances, nor post-pandemic. New habits and behaviours are emerging in business environments, and there are few assumptions about traditions that safely hold.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that these principled, commonsensical approaches in the business world have been lost on our city government, which has fashioned a dangerous new budget proposal to ask for more in 2021 from those who mainly have less to give. It is selfish, divisive and insensitive to the pitch of the moment.

Rather than confront the reality that lower revenue ought to spur a review of activities with an outcome of reductions to shield the customers – in this case, the taxpayers and the residents – the plan punts the problem into 2022 and grabs an extra 5% in property tax in lieu of the discomfiting truth most businesses and households have confronted. Which is: the world has changed, our systems and structures upon which we fashioned our business models are disrupted, and it is fallacious to pretend that 2021 will be like 2019 because 2020 has been unlike anything.

The city’s budget is an eye in the hurricane. With its various gyrations of revenue losses and gains and expense cuts and increases, there is only about a 1.1% shift in the city’s overall $1.598 billion in activities due in the year ahead. Instead of a reckoning that many of these revenue declines will not recover or that many of these tick-the-box expenses need to address that, the approach is to apply the tax powers of the municipality to paper it over.

There is a mild dip into contingency funds, even if the city earlier resisted as if this were not the definition of a rainy day. There is another whirl at curtailing the police budget by 1%, even though the budget summary admits police workload is not diminishing. There is “accelerated” action on the climate change strategy, even when the climate for small business is not locally, much less globally warming. There is the mayor’s jubilance in more than doubling the tax on empty homes to 3%, decrying the use of home ownership as a commodity yet taxing it as such. The budget takes from empty homes and offers nothing to empty stores. Nor does the polarizing budget offer any vision that might unify the community instead of vilifying “speculators.”

For much of the last decade in Vancouver, property tax increases barely surpassed inflation, never higher than 2.8% until 2016, when they shot to 4% and have eclipsed that mark ever since. What these increases should tell us is not that we were paying too little until 2016 but that we have been spending too much since.

Nothing in the budget proposal speaks of the need for a redefinition of the city’s mandate, how its dynamic will be twisted by the coronavirus into new shapes that require innovative strategies – to heal the downtown rather than repeal traffic there, for instance, or to engender without an expectation of civic entitlement a new, national resolve on the Downtown Eastside.

It is not only a lost opportunity but a lost moral compass. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media