Update: City council approved a 10.7 per cent property tax hike Tuesday evening.
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim announced Tuesday that he supports increasing a proposed property tax hike of 9.7 per cent this year to 10.7 per cent to help pay for more police, firefighters, road maintenance and other services.
Sim said at a news conference prior to a council meeting to discuss the 2023 $1.9-billion operating budget that ABC Vancouver Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung would later introduce an amendment that would explain the need for a 10.7 per cent hike.
A city staff report released last week recommended a 9.7 per cent increase.
“Let's be abundantly clear as to what these investments would mean — better quality sidewalks and roads with fewer potholes, consistent garbage pickup, cleaner streets and more frequent cleaning of public spaces, properly maintained green spaces, revitalized neighbourhoods, resilient government finances, and for the first time in over a decade, properly funded police and fire services,” Sim told reporters at city hall.
The mayor said the 10.7 per cent tax hike, which is expected to be approved because Sim’s ABC party has a majority on council, was needed to fund core services such as public safety, road upkeep and sanitation services that had been “severely underfunded” over the past decade.
In addition, he said, the previous council’s spending during the early days of the pandemic “effectively drained” the city's cash reserves, placing them well below healthy levels for good stable governance.
“While many of these conditions were either inherited by our administration or are entirely out of control of city hall, as elected officials, our responsibility is to address the challenges we see before us and offer a path towards a better future,” Sim said.
“Now I know increases like this are hard. Frankly, they suck. We completely understand that. Nobody likes property tax increases. However, leadership in government sometimes means making incredibly hard choices.”
Taxpayers expect value for their money, he continued.
“When you put your garbage out, you expect it to be picked up. When potholes appear, you expect them to be patched up. When you call 911, you expect emergency services to arrive. And when the snow falls, you expect the roads to be cleared. We have a choice to make. We can make these investments now. Or we can wait until the future when they become even more costly and problematic for residents.”
'It's going to come as a bit of a shock'
Green party councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry attended the Tuesday morning news conference and learned of the mayor’s support for a 10.7 per cent tax hike at the same time as reporters.
“I think this does address a lot of the amendments that we were certainly hoping to bring forward,” Fry said. “But I think it's going to come as a bit of a shock to Vancouverites; this is a lot of spending.”
Fry echoed the mayor’s comments about it being “unprecedented times” over the last few years since the pandemic was declared in 2020.
“Certainly, there's some spending pieces that we might prioritize differently, but on the whole I’m very happy to see a lot of the commitments that the mayor just made towards fire and engineering, and a lot of the front-facing anti-racism and equity work that was unfunded in the budget so far,” Fry said.
Carr said she has been on council for four terms and pointed to her days under the Vision Vancouver administration, saying taxes were kept low but investment was cut in renewing the city’s sewer system.
“So now we have to play catch up, and that’s a lot of hundreds of millions of dollars to do that,” she said.
Last year, Carr successfully moved a motion to direct staff to include in the draft 2023 operating budget an amount of up to one dollar per Vancouver resident to support West Coast Environmental Law’s class-action suit against fossil fuel companies.
That estimated $660,000 investment, which Sim said during his election campaign would be a waste of money, was not included in the budget.
Carr said Tuesday she plans to introduce an amendment during budget discussions to her original motion, requesting instead that a penny from each taxpayer be used to support the class-action suit.
That would equate to an estimated $6,600.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it keeps us in the game and keeps other municipalities inspired by Vancouver to pursue that and get our money to make the polluter pay, and get our money back for what we're investing in climate,” she said.
'More expensive than ever to operate in this city'
OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle issued a statement to media Tuesday saying she still hadn’t seen the amendment to be introduced by Kirby-Yung and whether cuts to services would be coming this year.
“We agree that infrastructure and city services need to be funded — and badly,” Boyle said. “We also welcome investments in public washrooms, combating anti-Black racism and revitalizing neighbourhoods like the Punjabi Market, all of which were in our platform.”
Added Boyle: “But it's more expensive than ever to operate in this city. With the draft budget as it stands, services like the Vancouver Public Library, non-profit child-care providers, neighbourhood houses and other front-line organizations will not receive the funding that they desperately need to keep up with rising costs and demands.”
Some of the investments the mayor mentioned at the news conference were:
• $1 million for road maintenance, pothole repairs and horticulture.
• $186,000 for “micro-cleaning grants” to support cleaner plazas and parklets.
• $1.8 million annually for snow preparedness and response.
• $4.1 million to hire 33 new firefighters and staff.
• An additional $3.6 million for the Vancouver Police Department, including $200,000 for a body-worn camera pilot program, $450,000 for community policing and $1.1 million for communications and evidence management technology.
• $110,000 to the Vancouver Public Library to create a staff position that would provide training to build staff skills in crisis prevention and intervention.
• $100,000 would be made available to support staff “re-skilling” to increase the number of public service positions within the organization.
• $406,000 for advancing accessibility initiatives to address upcoming provincial legislation and to hire a language access specialist.
• $210,000 to advance reconciliation efforts through an increase in inter-governmental relations, staffing and completion of outstanding work on gender equity and safety related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
'Ripping the Band-Aid off'
During the last term of council, three NPA-turned-ABC Vancouver councillors were critical of the previous Kennedy Stewart-led council’s annual tax hikes, which cumulatively amounted to close to 30 per cent.
Asked about that criticism from his councillors and how he squared that with his support for a 10.7 per cent tax hike, Sim pointed out other municipalities in the region are facing the same financial pressures, noting inflation is at seven per cent.
“So right off the bat, you're starting behind,” he said. “And then the last administration, even with their property tax increases, they avoided a bunch of investments in core services that made their numbers look even better than they were.”
Added Sim: “What we're doing is we're ripping the Band-Aid off, and we're being incredibly transparent to the residents. We're showing them what we're doing, and why we're doing it. These are hard choices to make, but they're the right choices.”
The mayor said property “tax increases of this magnitude cannot and will not become the norm” and that “tax increases like this” will not become a thing of the future.
More than 40 citizens were expected to address council throughout Tuesday. Council is then scheduled to make a final decision March 7 on the operating budget.
Council already approved in December the 2023 capital budget, including new multi-year capital budget allocations of $581 million and annual expenditure budget of $730 million.