Local political leaders urged unity in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and answered questions during a virtual town hall hosted by the Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday afternoon.
Federal, provincial and municipal representatives included the mayors of Cranbrook, Kimberley and Canal Flats, while both the Kootenay East MLA and Kootenay-Columbia MP were also present.
The virtual town hall, hosted through the video-conferencing app Zoom, featured presentations from MP Rob Morrison, MLA Tom Shypitka, and Mayors Lee Pratt, Don McCormick, and Karl Sterzer of Cranbrook, Kimberley and Canal Flats, respectively.
Morrison said he is working remotely as Parliament is not sitting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, he is in contact with Conservative party and federal government colleagues to get answers on ongoing economic support announcements.
The Kootenay-Columbia MP said while announcements have been made, the execution of accessing some of those economic supports and getting some answers have been lacking.
“When they came out with the initial package for business, there was no real thought in how they were going to execute that,” Morrison said. “They had a plan of spending $120 billion, but they didn’t get to the fine details of how it’s actually going to do that, so it’s been frustrating.”
“This is non-partisan, we’re not trying to get political here, we’re just trying to get some answers and get some money into the hands of people who need it.”
So far, the federal government has announced the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, which provides $2,000 a month for up to four months for someone who has lost income due to COVID-19. Other initiatives include a 75 per cent wage subsidy and tweaking a number of existing programs to expand eligibility for those impacted by the pandemic.
From a provincial government standpoint, a $5 billion support package was recently announced, of which approximately $1.5 billion will be earmarked for post-pandemic recovery, according to Shypitka. There has been a consistent effort to work with the federal government to try and bridge any support gaps as well, he added.
The province announced a emergency benefit for workers of $1,000, while a number of other initiatives have also been brought forward including deferring BC Hydro bills, various tax deferrals for businesses, and financial relief for renters and a moratorium on evictions.
Shypitka also noted his recent appearance as a delegate during a Regional District of East Kootenay meeting, where inter-provincial travel was a lengthy discussion topic. That culminated in a resolution asking the province for clarity and stronger measures to prevent inter-community travel, such as closing the provincial border, during the pandemic.
“I think the message is simple — stay home,” said Shypitka.
From a local government perspective, McCormick said it was an understatement to say everyone’s in a state of confusion.
All mayors were queried on how the pandemic will affect annual budgets.
Pratt noted that staff are currently working on analyzing essential services and seeing where expenditures can be trimmed without an adverse affect on delivering services.
“We are, right now in the process, of waiting to hear back from staff on some other savings that we may be able to implement and that will affect mostly the budget for next year,” said Pratt. “We did feel that we wanted to continue with some of our capital projects to create employment in the community.
“And the reason for that is during the last five years, we spent about $30 million on infrastructure in Cranbrook and the way we changed our tender process, all that money stayed locally so it kept a lot of the local people working, it kept $30 million in the local economy which kind of carried us through that last Alberta downturn at that time, so that’s why we elected to continue the capital works projects that we have now but we are looking and very concerned, going forward, what our cash flow is going to be.”
While layoffs haven’t hit the City of Cranbrook yet, the City of Kimberley laid off five full-time employees with the Aquatic Centre, according to McCormick.
Pratt said the City of Cranbrook is re-deploying part-time staff, particularly with Community Services, to tackle on-going projects that haven’t been done due to constant use of recreational facilities.
“I think it’s important for the community to have as little layoffs as possible in any areas,” Pratt said. “I know that smaller businesses don’t have a lot of choices, but municipalities such as ours, I think it’s prudent for us to be looking at ways to to be maintaining those services and become more efficient in our operations and do that with innovation and open-mindedness and thinking outside the box.”
McCormick says local governments have the least flexibility when it comes to being able to adjust to adjust financially on-the-fly, and that municipalities cannot legally run a deficit.
“We’re governed by the Community Charter and the Local Government Act and by law, we cannot run a deficit,” McCormick said. “So that means that every additional dollar that we spend money on in the budget, it has to be accounted for someplace else. It can have some fairly significant implications on cash flow and also on our ability to provide services to the community.”
Some tools for local governments to provide relief are available, but they come with caveats and exceptions.
Municipalities can move the due date for property tax collection, typically July 31st. However, municipalities are also on the hook for taxes to school districts, the RDEK and Interior Health, which are due on Aug. 1.
“If we defer tax collection beyond Aug. 1, we’re on the hook, from a cash flow point of view, for paying for that,” McCormick said.
Additionally, a program exists for residential homeowners 55-years-old and up who have 30 per cent equity in their homes, who can apply for a low-interest loan from the province, which then pays their property tax to a municipal government. However, it is not available for commercial properties.
As far as municipal budgeting goes, it comes down to balancing tax increases or decreases and the resulting impacts on service delivery.
Does garbage pickup move from every week to every two weeks? Would residents be content to reduce hours at the Aquatic Centre to save money? Do potholes get regularly repaired?
“These are all difficult decisions because no one wants to see a reduction in service, but if the cash flow into the municipality is hindered in any way, those services reductions are an inevitability,” McCormick said.
“So what our councils are struggling with right now is exactly what are we as a municipality able to do without having negative consequences that may be worse than not doing anything at all.”
Pratt encouraged communities to remain positive and to support businesses that remain open, such as restaurants offering take-out and delivery services, as well as any other local business that is operating.
“I think with a lot of people being at home a lot now, the tendency is to get on their computers and do a lot of online shopping, possibly,” Pratt said. “And I would encourage them to shop local, don’t get caught up into the Amazon world and start buying a lot of stuff outside of the community that they need or don’t need.
“Definitely this is the time to be supporting our local businesses.”