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Comment: Victoria's budget for 2022 sets the table for the future

Here are some of the requests Victoria council is considering
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Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps writes that a significant property-tax hike is needed to prepare the city for the coming decades. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by the mayor of Victoria.

I’ve been at the council table for 10 years; this is my 11th budget, and it’s going to be the most ­difficult one yet. Budget 2022 is the City of Victoria’s third pandemic budget. It’s also difficult because like other cities across Canada, Victoria is facing big challenges: pandemic recovery, housing affordability, climate change, public safety, equity diversity and inclusion.

The main source of revenue that cities have to address these challenges is property taxes — a municipal funding formula that dates back to 1867 and doesn’t grow as the economy grows. It would be great if cities got one per cent of the provincial sales tax generated in their jurisdiction on an annual basis to help address the issues facing us and meet demands from the public for action.

But as of now, we don’t. And with parking and conference centre revenues still down from pre-pandemic levels, a key question becomes: How much do we raise property taxes this year to support recovery and invest in the future?

In 2020, we didn’t raise ­property taxes at all, yet continued to deliver all the services that Victorians rely on. In 2021, to support our struggling businesses, we reduced business taxes by two per cent. This approach is not sustainable.

The City’s core budget for 2022 proposes a property tax increase of 3.25 per cent. This includes key city services like parks operations, road paving, underground infrastructure and a new firehall with affordable housing.

Budget 2022 also proposes millions of dollars of spending on climate action; making these investments now provides ­substantial savings to ­taxpayers of the future. And almost a quarter of the core budget funds VicPD and bylaw.

Yet council has heard over the past few years, from a wide range of people, that the ­proposed core budget doesn’t meet the needs of our growing and changing city.

Here are some of the ­supplemental requests council is considering:

1. Pandemic recovery. Everyone loved those pandemic patios; making them permanent comes with costs. Demand has grown at the city’s Business Hub with an uptick in new business licences over the past two quarters; the city’s one business ambassador needs additional resources to continue to support startups and expansions.

Development applications keep pouring in; the planning department requires additional staff to process applications and get new housing built quickly. Arts and culture venues and ­artists hit hard by the pandemic need a boost in 2022. And the city’s new Arts and ­Innovation District needs rezoning to facilitate future development on under-used commercially zoned land.

2. Climate action. Earlier in the year, there was strong ­public opposition to­ ­expanding the ­Hartland Landfill. New ­zero-waste staff are needed to implement policies to reduce single-use items and ­construction waste, extending the life of the current landfill.

Victorians love trees, so council recently strengthened the tree protection bylaw, making it more difficult to cut down trees for new development. Additional staff resources are now required to process permits and protect the urban forest for the future.

3. Affordable housing. We’ve received thousands of emails over the past few years ­asking the city to do more on ­homelessness and affordable housing. Even though these are ­primarily federal and ­provincial ­responsibilities, we’re responding in Budget 2022 by proposing to play a larger role including a new position at the city to work on homelessness, ­funding the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, ­funding Our Place to extend their hours, and an additional quarter ­million ­dollars to accelerate the ­implementation of the Victoria Housing Strategy.

4. Public safety. VicPD needs 10 new staff, including six officers to help address the challenges police are taking on because of a downloading of mental-health and substance-use issues to local governments. And city bylaw requires more resources to keep up with increased resident demands on the bylaw department.

5. Equity, diversity and inclusion. From George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020 to the discovery of hundreds of children’s bodies in graves at former residential school sites in the summer of 2021, Canada and Canadian cities have entered a new era. In this era, the voices, experiences and needs of those left too long on the margins must be addressed, to create inclusive, prosperous communities that benefit everyone.

This means: anti-racism and reconciliation training for city staff, better integration for newcomers in the city’s recreation programs, a cultural liaison officer at VicPD, an Indigenous relations function at City Hall and, potentially, a Community Reconciliation Levy to transfer some of the wealth generated by new development to the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, on whose lands the city was built.

As you scroll through the supplementary items in the budget survey, a story starts to emerge of a city preparing for the future. There is a cost attached to this; we will have a higher tax increase than has been seen in recent years.

But making these investments now will help to meet the demands council has heard from the public over the past few years and will lay the ground for a continued strong and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

To participate in the process, take the budget survey at engage.victoria.ca and join us at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17 for a virtual budget town hall.