Credit: Jonathon Narvey

Vancouver residents come out in force to an emotionally charged public city budget meeting, begging the question, 'what are our priorities?'


There’s nothing like an economic catastrophe to concentrate minds about civic priorities. A city is not just a collection of sewers, roads and public buildings; today, we expect the city to provide services that cover social sustainability, environmentalism and public safety, just to name a few.


Some city services, like parks and libraries, are seen not just as services, but as essential to our civic space where citizens can gather and livability is defined. When the money tap gets cut off, watch out.


Vancouver City Hall was practically overrun on Thursday night for a public discussion of the operating budget by irate and fearful citizens, many whose livelihoods depend on city funding for their organizations. With 86 people on the speaker list as of 7:30 a.m., Council was in for a long, long night.


The reality: We have to pay up to maintain services

Vancouver has not been spared by this global economic recession. City Council was told in October that the city was facing a $61.7 million dollar shortfall in its operating budget for 2010 [see the numbers here (PDF)]. Just to maintain services and all city buildings, residents would have had to cough up 11.2 percent more in taxes.



But that’s not happening. Our elected representatives are now considering something far less—a 2 percent tax increase (with some relief for business owners passed on to residents). Even if they more than doubled that to 5 percent we’d still be looking at a $28 million shortfall.


Survey says: Don't cut our public spaces!

And what do the people think—or at least those who cared enough to respond to surveys and came out to budget meetings this fall?


Think City’s Citizen Budget Survey 2010 got 2,200 responses (six times the number of responses to the City’s online survey) and a majority of those polled want to see maintained levels of funding for parks, libraries, community centers and civic grants—indeed, significant numbers actually want budget increases in these areas. Yet these are all areas where the City is thinking of cutting to some extent.


Those polled were also not happy about the idea of cutting taxes to business owners by 2 percent, to be offset by residential tax.


Budget cuts Vancouver residents could stomach

Notably, almost half of Think City respondents wanted cuts to “general administration,” possibly because no one knows what exactly that entails—one conjures up unlikely image of a room full of secretaries and executive assistants drinking tea and getting pedicures, or the entire IT department spending their time playing Call of Duty over their Intranet.


Also, up to a third felt police services could safely get reduced, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since Vancouverites have been taking a bath on overtime pay for cops.


What's getting cut and who'll be affected

I admire the earnestness of the speakers at the meeting, but it does look at this point like libraries will be closed and that the ones remaining open may have to reduce hours.


The Bloedel Conservatory and Children’s Farmyard in Stanley Park look to be on the chopping block. And, as a Parks official put it, in the city that aims to be the greenest on the planet, it looks like we’ll be planting 4,000 fewer trees this year.


Of course, these cuts aren’t just to services, but to the service providers: at a time of record unemployment, the city will be adding to the throng of those accepting Employment Insurance.


Everyone is aware of the global meltdown and what that means at the local level, so the calls from various organizations and individual citizens to save this-or-that worthwhile project seem a bit surreal. It seemed the height of posturing for Park Board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon to try to “save everything.”


Likewise, Councillor David Cadman’s coming back again and again to the question of precisely how many jobs would be lost due to cutbacks—and his genuine shock when a Park official didn't have a number—was surely motivated by earnest intentions; but at times seemed a bit like pandering to a fighting-mad crowd.


The tricky road ahead for Vancouver City Council

It is incumbent on this Council to make hard decisions about where to make cuts, and city residents would be shocked if they simply abdicated their responsibility in the hopes that a tax-and-spend strategy would buy enough votes to keep them politically safe.


As well, the city, of all levels of government, is the least able to offset the failure of the marketplace by becoming the employer of last resort.


What makes Council’s job tougher is that city residents as well as staff and politicians are all much more cognizant of how cuts in one area can affect another that is not intuitively connected.


For instance, when libraries cut back hours and after-school basketball programs get dropped, the cops will see a rise in social disorder and crime.


When pools and community centre fitness clubs get shut down, you’re not just losing a place for different strata of the city to integrate—you’re also going to see declining health and quality of life.


Disadvantaged youth and isolated seniors may get hit the worst. Cuts to police service delivery can result in declining property values and declining opportunities for the kids growing up in tougher neighborhoods.


So Council has some tough decisions to make. Even the Think City crowd’s numbers didn’t support anything more than a 3 percent tax increase, so there will be cuts to services. Get ready for it.