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Q&A: Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart on his proposed ‘climate emergency action levy’

‘There’s an election next year, and I'm sure that I'll hear about this’
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has proposed a “climate emergency action levy” that he plans to bring before city council at its Dec. 7 budget meeting.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart dropped a news bomb Nov. 24, calling for city council to include a “climate emergency action levy” as part of next year’s budget.

But what is it exactly? How would it work? And who would it apply to?

These are questions Vancouver Is Awesome posed to Stewart this week in search of more detail on the proposed levy, which the mayor is expected to present to council on Dec. 7, the day council is scheduled to finalize the 2022 budget.

“That's when I would move my amendment and then council would debate and decide whether or not they want to go ahead with this levy,” said Stewart, whose staff is still finalizing the amendment.

Coun. Melissa De Genova has already raised concerns about the levy and critics on social media have said the move is simply the mayor trying to save face with voters he angered over his vote in October to scrap a city-wide plan for a $45 a year parking permit fee.

The parking fee was a component of the city’s climate emergency action plan to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Vancouver.

The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

V.I.A.: What is a climate levy?

Mayor Kennedy Stewart: I would really like to be the first major city in North America to reach net zero, but we're only going to get there through investments in infrastructure. So that's what this levy would be specifically targeted at doing. It would be levied on properties, and that way it's progressive. So those folks who have properties of lower value would pay less than those that have properties of a higher value.

So how much will this cost property owners?

We're just calculating that now. But it also depends on what council decides and how much they think is needed. So for example, somebody who owns a condo worth $650,000 or $700,000 in value, would pay between, say, $20 and $40 a year. And the [single-family] homeowner with a property of $1 million-plus would pay more than that. Commercial property owners would also be included in this levy.

I assume the levy would be included on a property owner’s tax bill?

Yes. We do this already. It's not out of the blue. We do it for overdoses. In 2018, there was an additional levy added to specifically deal with the overdose crisis, which then is applied every year to the overall bills sent to property owners.

You're calling it a levy. It's a tax though, right?

Well, yeah. I mean, they're both very similar. So sure, you could call it a tax. I'm calling it a levy. Actually, I think in the Charter, they're actually not called taxes. They're called levies.

You’ve estimated this tax or levy could generate $100 million over the next decade to fight climate change. What specifically would the money be used for?

If this is approved, this would be specifically for the emergency action plan measures, which is both emission reduction and mitigation. So infrastructure such as electric vehicle chargers, priority bus lanes. We're looking at putting way more electric buses in the city. TransLink, of course, supplies the vehicles, but we have to alter our roads in order to facilitate both the chargers and the express nature of these buses. Rainwater capture, too.

What do you mean by rainwater capture?

Cities are all asphalt, and when rainwater hits, it tends to roll off and flood things. So an example of [rainwater capture] is near Olympic Village. These are natural areas where water will collect and you'll get bulrushes and stuff growing there. They're kind of natural sponges that we've tended to pave over, but now we open them up, and it just adds to our resilience. It’s good in a whole bunch of ways, it also filters the water. They actually add to neighbourhoods and they will have to be built all over the city.

You announced this levy one week before council’s first go at the 2022 budget. Why didn’t you announce this sooner?

I have given quite a lot of leeway. That's why I got out early with a kind of higher level announcement so councillors could kind of chew it over — and we have been in discussions with some of them to kind of shape this. So that’s all been quite positive.

So you've heard the critics say that you're proposing this levy to save face with those people upset over the fact you voted against the $45-a-year permit for car owners? What do you say to that?

First of all, I completely agree with the climate emergency action plan and the goals, both the investments and behaviour change that we have to all embrace. I just disagreed with funding the parking fee through a regressive tax. And that is what the parking permits were. So if you rent a basement apartment, you have to park on the street and pay for a residential parking permit. But if you live in a big house and park in your driveway, you don't. If anything, it's lower income people that get disproportionately affected by climate change anyway. If you own a big mansion in Shaughnessy, and you’ve got to pay 100 bucks a year for this climate levy, that seems fair to me. If you own a studio condo in East Vancouver and you pay 10 bucks or somewhere around there a year, then I think it passes people's nod test.

So you’re saying this climate levy is not a response to voting against the parking permit fee?

No. If it's the same choice came again, I would totally vote against that tax again. We have to find a different way forward. Of course, the best way to fund all of this investment is through income tax. And that is where Prime Minister Trudeau has made quite a commitment to climate targets. And besides the oil and gas sector, most of that work is going to have to happen in metropolitan areas. I did talk to the prime minister directly about this. I was assured that the appropriate funding will be coming, especially to cities that are aggressively pursuing emissions reduction.

Pretty certain the last thing people want right now is another tax.

I think it's a bold move, and I think this is the fairest way forward. The worst thing to do when communities are being obliterated by climate change is to promise the plan and then not act. There’s an election next year, and I'm sure that I'll hear about this. I think council needs to put their money where their mouth is, and this [levy] is one way of doing that.

You and the rest of council have made it clear you don’t want to raise property taxes by more than five per cent next year. So how would this levy affect a five per cent tax hike scenario?

As you know, there is a ton of horse trading that happens on the floor of council when finalizing the budget, so we'll only know where we land after those debates. We still could land at five per cent, which is where I was hoping to land. But I'm only one vote of 11. So there may be other things that folks want to put in the budget. We’ll see where we get to on Dec. 7.

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