Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s COVID-19 Update for April 8, 2020

The following is the full text of Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s April 8, 2020 update to the city on COVID-19.

Check against delivery.

Good afternoon and thank you to everyone for being here.

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge we are gathered upon the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations.

I want to start off this afternoon by taking a moment to recognize the tremendous leadership shown by our Federal and Provincial governments.

This has been a rapidly changing situation, something no one planned for, and something completely unprecedented.

At the Federal level I have had the honour of being in regular contact with senior cabinet Ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Freeland, and they have always been 100% engaged with our local issues.

At the Provincial level, the daily updates from Minister Dix and Dr. Henry have become touchstones for me everyday, as I’m sure they have been for all British Columbians.

I’ve had the added fortune of being in almost daily contact with Minister Dix and I want to again thank him for his updates to me and his commitment to our Province.

Last week I also had a very warm call with Premier John Horgan, who assured me he and his government are in our corner and I couldn’t be more grateful for that commitment.

Our partner agencies have also stepped up like they never have before. Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing in particular are working closely with us to make sure we keep the needs of our most vulnerable neighbours top of mind.

Finally, I want to send my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19.

These are the most uncertain of times, and I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be to lose someone in the middle of this crisis (pause)

As I said last week, I have four key priority areas for our COVID-19 response in Vancouver:

  1. City wide compliance with health orders
  2. Support for vulnerable communities, especially in the Downtown Eastside
  3. Our organizations’ internal financial picture and plan
  4. Vancouver’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery

Today I will be focused on the third, our City’s internal fiscal situation, but first some other updates.

1) City wide compliance with health orders

First of all, on our city-wide response to COVID-19, I want to say that Vancouver residents have done a tremendous job listening to the advice from public health officials, staying at home, limiting trips to the grocery store, and keeping physical distance when in public.

Thank you and please keep it up. We’re not out of this yet.

And like all Vancouverites, I’m especially proud of how hard and how well our front-line workers are fighting COVID-19 and are keeping our city safe.

Whether you are a police officer, fighter fighter, nurse, trades person, peer-worker, or working in our city departments, you are all heroes.

Thank you too to Vancouver City Council for burning the midnight oil to keep our city going.

It’s still too early to predict when we might be emerging from this crisis, but there is a lot to be hopeful about.

New case numbers, hospitalization rates, and ICU admissions all point towards signs our sacrifices might just be paying off.

But as Health Minister Adrian Dix said yesterday, now is not the time to relax. Now is the time to double down.

That’s why it’s so critical that we continue to listen to these orders.

Stay Put to Save Lives.

Because the better we follow that simple rule, the faster we can put this crisis behind us.

And the better we’ll all come out of this.

2) Support for vulnerable communities, DTES

Secondly, I want to quickly touch on vulnerable residents and the Downtown Eastside who are not only dealing with COVID19, but also a devastating overdose crisis.

Last Friday, I outlined additional measures we’re taking with the support of our partners to support our most vulnerable neighbours to slow the transmission of the virus.

Measures like delivering meals directly into SRO rooms.

And providing increased sanitation and cleaning services in 21 SROs so residents can self-isolate and keep themselves safe

Today, I am once again relieved to report that there are no confirmed outbreaks of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside.

However, despite the recent introduction of safe supply, we lost 16 of our neighbours to overdoses in the last two weeks.

And, even more troubling, over 50 since the beginning of the year.

That’s why I am calling on all levels of government to do even more to help us combat a poisoned drug supply and make safe supply a permanent addition to our healthcare arsenal.

We also urgently need help to make sure we deliver housing for everyone who needs it once and for all in this community and across our city.

In a City, Province, and country as prosperous as ours: the fact that we haven’t delivered even the more basic necessities for our neighbours here is just unacceptable.

3) Our organizations’ internal financial picture and plan

I am going to spend most of my time today speaking about our internal financial picture.

Across Canada, local governments like ours are facing significant financial pressures, as we fight to ensure health orders from senior governments are enforced.

COVID-19 has been tough on our city.

Like many businesses losing customers, many City revenue sources have evaporated, as we’ve closed community services to heed calls to comply with physical distancing orders.

This means, we’re facing a serious gap in funding at City Hall, something we will not be able to make up in the future.

Two weeks ago, I joined Metro Mayors to call on the Province to make two key changes that would help shore up our finances and support residents, and I will reiterate them again today.

First: we call on the Province to expand the Provincial property tax deferment program.

Under the current program, the Province provides applicants, such as seniors, with low-interest loans while providing municipalities with direct funds to cover deferred property taxes.

We need this program expanded to include all residents, businesses and non-profit agencies experiencing financial hardship.

This would provide immediate support for the thousands of Vancouver homeowners, business owners, and non-profits who will very soon be faced with defaulting on their taxes if we don’t find a way to help.

Many homeowners are small business owners who have seen their stores shuttered over the last several weeks.

Others have watched as the volatility in the financial markets have rapidly eroded their savings and undermined their ability to pay their bills.

And I don’t need to point out that most non-profits operate on a shoestring budget, so a shock like COVID-19 could be a death sentence unless we act now.

Second: I am also asking the province to delay remittance of non-City property tax items that we collect on behalf of others until the payments are received by taxpayers.

This includes provincial school taxes, TransLink fees, and Metro Vancouver fees that we cannot afford to finance on our own.

We would not be asking for this if it wasn’t for the dire financial situation we find ourselves in.

The City of Vancouver has already taken action to try and stem our losses, including:

  • Issuing temporary layoff notices to 1,500 staff
  • Restrictions on new hiring and travel
  • Cost and spending reductions
  • And a capital spending review

But the fact of the matter is that we are still losing millions of dollars a week.

Between March and May 2020 we expect to seen a 50% reduction in non-City property tax revenues such as rentals, community centre fees, parking, and other important revenue sources.

That equates to $4–5 million per week in lost revenues.

We are also incurring additional costs to respond to the crisis, including our focus on protecting our vulnerable population in the DTES.

And this doesn’t yet take into account what would happen in the event thousands of property tax payers begin to default.

That’s why my third request of the Province is to commit to providing an initial direct grant of up to $200 million dollars to the City of Vancouver.

An emergency grant will help ensure the City of Vancouver can continue to maintain essential services and public safety while also continuing to support vulnerable residents.

In addition, as the economic engine of our Province — it will ensure the City is ready to help lead British Columbia when the time comes for economic recovery.

This $200 million dollar figure comes from this morning’s City Manager’s report detailing projections based on three different scenarios of how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out locally depending on how long public health restrictions remain in effect.

The first scenario assumes restrictions are lifted at the end of May and a three month recovery period.

The second scenario assumes restrictions are lifted at the end of August and a six month recovery period.

The third scenario assumes restrictions are lifted at the end of December and that the recovery period extends into 2021.

In the most optimistic scenario of a May return to normal we expect to see a 2020 budget deficit of $61 million.

To provide an example of how much this will hit our budget, a one percent increase in property taxes generates about $8 million in revenue.

Even this optimistic scenario approximately equates to an 8% percent increase in property taxes on top of our regular projected increases.

Or a corresponding reduction in staff and services which could include the long-term closure of facilities, reducing hours at libraries and community centres, cutting community grants, or worse.

In a more likely scenario of an August 31 return to normal, we expect a total budget impact of $111 million — equivalent to a 14% extra property tax increase.

In the worst case scenario of this crisis stretching until the end of December, we expect a total budget impact of $189 million — equivalent to an extra 24% property tax increase.

Of course, these types of property tax increases are impossible to contemplate, leading instead to service reductions, staff layoffs or other measures, including impacts on essential services such as Police and Fire which are funded by property tax without provincial help.

The City Manager’s report will be presented to Council next Tuesday with Council faced with some very difficult decisions in the weeks and months to come.

Our situation is extremely serious. We need help from the Province.

If we don’t get Provincial support, we will be forced to make more reductions to front line services, and of course, additional layoffs.

Right now, there is no program, no lifeline in place for local government.

We do not qualify for the new Federal wage subsidies, and yet we are counted on by senior levels of government to make sure public safety and essential services are maintained.

When the time comes for recovery, and it will, we can either have cities like ours ready to implement economic stimulus that creates jobs and kick starts our economy.

Or we could be financially decimated, and unable to move quickly — leading to a much slower recovery costing even more people a chance at getting back to prosperity.

That is also why I am asking the Province to include me and other municipal leaders on their economic recovery task force.

Cities are on the front lines of both fighting COVID-19, as well as relaunching our economy.

Make no mistake, a slow economic recovery here in Vancouver will mean an even slower economic recovery for the rest of British Columbia.

But a Vancouver that’s financially secure, and able to rapidly lead BC’s economic recovery will mean faster recoveries for people in the Lower Mainland and right across the province.

I want to close this afternoon by wishing our neighbours and friends in the Jewish community a very happy Passover.

In years past, families and loved ones would come together at sundown and share stories and thoughts about redemption and freedom.

This year, things will be different.

Just as they will be for the families across our City who were looking forward to celebrating Easter this weekend.

Or who had been preparing for the colours, sounds, and tastes of Vaisakhi.

They too were looking forward to continuing long held traditions of gathering and storytelling, reflecting on faith and community, and of course visiting with elders.

This global crisis has changed so much about how we live, but it has not and will not change our commitment and love for each other.

So while you may not be able to see your friends, family, neighbours and loved ones in person, take a moment and reach out.

Wish someone a Happy Passover over the phone, celebrate Easter with a text message, or share a Vaisakhi meal virtually on Skype.

I promise that when we come out of this, we’ll all have a deeper respect for gatherings of all types.

And we’ll cherish the time we have face to face all the more.

But for now, honour your families, your city, and most importantly, your traditions in a new way this year — by staying home, staying safe, and saving lives.

Thank you, and I’ll now take your questions.

The 40th Mayor of Vancouver.