Let’s try some carrots instead of sticks to reduce carbon emissions and change behaviour

Like many cities around the world, the city is striving to reduce GHG emissions from buildings and vehicles to address our changing climate. There is no denying the science that points to climate change and at a city level buildings and combustion vehicles are the biggest emitters. To this end, last fall Vancouver City Council passed a series of recommendations to help reduce these emissions. As a mom of two young daughters, I care about their future and the world they will inherit. This is why I supported many of the recommendations to reduce our carbon emissions; however, I took issue with the approach to mobility pricing and citywide parking.

The issue that dominated the discussions was the proposed Metro Core transport pricing framework. And while congestion pricing is likely the way of the future for the lower mainland due to our growing population, I was opposed to a Vancouver only approach that red-circled our downtown core. The independent commission on mobility pricing was clear that a regional approach is essential to a successful transport pricing framework and that revenues should be reinvested in public transit to enable people to make different choices. Neither of these ingredients were part of the transport pricing framework proposed by city staff. There was no economic impact analysis to look at the implications for small businesses in and around the downtown core, nor to consider the current pandemic. While this issue will be studied further by city staff as a result of a last minute amendment, we would be wise to wait and see the results of Translink’s Transport 2050 report due later this year and focus on a regional approach.

Two issues that got little or no attention in last fall’s staff report were a proposed citywide parking permit program and the proposed expansion of electric vehicle charging stations.

The proposed citywide parking permit would impose not only a parking permit system, but also a non-market rate fee for drivers who park their cars on residential streets. This parking program would include market rate fees in later years, such as the West End currently has in place to manage curbside use ($400/year). The rationale for the proposal was that it would help reduce the number of vehicles in the city and allow us to use the curbside differently.

Staff presented a technical briefing today of what such a program could look like: a citywide street parking permit of $45/year, plus a carbon surcharge for newer, combustion vehicles ($500 – $1,000/year) and an overnight parking fee for visitors (10pm to 7am). The proposal is now positioned as a pollution charge.

While I believe we need to do our part to reduce carbon emissions, I opposed this proposal last fall because I don’t believe it is the right tool in the toolbox.

This proposal makes the city less affordable for both renters and homeowners who have been struggling through the current pandemic. Now is not the time to add more taxes and fees to already beleaguered residents, particularly in neighbourhoods where parking is not a problem, public transit is limited, and there has not been adequate consideration for social equity issues.

This proposal is also inequitable. It imposes a base permit fee on 50% of vehicle owners in the city (if you are lucky enough to have a driveway, parking pad or underground parkade, guess what – you don’t pay because the city can only manage and charge for street use.). If you’re not lucky enough to have private parking and need a vehicle for work or family reasons, then you may be a resident who can least afford the new base permit fee.

If we want to encourage people to move away from combustion vehicles or reduce the number of vehicles in the city, then a few more carrots and less sticks would be the route I would go. Explore incentives like reduced property taxes if you park your vehicle on your property or provide laneway housing on your parking pad. Improve public transit access to all corners of the city so that travel across the city is more seamless. Improve pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in higher density areas. Invest in complete neighbourhoods so people can more readily access services near where they live.

We have a robust carbon tax framework in British Columbia, which municipalities benefitted from until the Province recently cancelled the Climate Action Revenue Incentive Program (CARIP). Let’s work with the Province to get more equitable access to carbon tax revenues for necessary civic infrastructure and encourage the Province to introduce additional rebates towards the purchase of electric vehicles and hybrids.

Last fall we invested in EV charging infrastructure at public facilities, neighbourhood hubs and in existing and new buildings to enable the adoption of EVs. This was one of the most understated and underreported aspects of the climate report that I supported. The public is moving in this direction – the number of EVs in the city has gone up 700% over the past five years.

We have socially and environmentally conscious residents, let’s support them in a positive way to make informed choices on their next vehicle choice (if at all). Let’s also respect their pocket books and their concerns about affordability.

Residents have an opportunity to have their say on this proposal starting June 14 until July 5, 2021. I urge residents to weigh in and inform Council’s decision. https://shapeyourcity.ca/parking

Lisa Dominato
Vancouver City Councillor (Independent)

In the middle of an affordability crisis, Vancouver hiked property taxes sky high. Why?

Originally published in the Globe and Mail on January 30, 2020

One of the top issues in the recent federal election was affordability. Canadians across the country expressed concern about rising costs of living, from food to housing.

So how is it, in the face of an affordability crisis, that the city of Vancouver increased property taxes to the highest level in recent memory? The answer lies in a false urgency.

In time for Christmas break, our city council rushed a vote to approve its 2020 operating budget to the chagrin of many members of council, including myself. I said from the beginning of the budget process that the recommended property tax increase was too high, and I ultimately voted against the final 7-per-cent increase.

The councillors in our Non-Partisan Association (NPA) caucus put forward a pragmatic motion to have staff further review fixed costs, explore reducing department budgets by 5 per cent, and report back in the new year with a revised budget.

Disappointingly, this motion wasn’t supported by the council majority.

Lost on everyone, it seems, is the fact that the budget does not need to be approved until April in the following year. The provincial government operates with interim supply until the final budget is approved, often a few months after the start of the fiscal year. I think it is fair to say that the 2020 city budget was rammed through without proper due diligence.

So, where are your tax dollars going?

Well, 3.5 per cent of the property tax increase is represented by “fixed costs” – which includes expenditures such as rents, leases, insurance, utilities, and wages and benefits for pending collective agreements. However, we later learned that some of these line items involved discretionary spending and unfilled job vacancies that could have helped reduce the tax by more than one percentage point. I believe we could have found more savings in this area.

The proposed $110-million in increased spending also included funding proposals to address a range of service gaps and new initiatives, such as public safety, the Vancouver Plan and climate initiatives. There is no doubt councillors hold varying views on what should be highest priority among these initiatives and the myriad of existing city services.

And while we may disagree on priorities, there were surely more savings to be found. Asking staff to take a further look for them was a matter of exercising good governance and transparency.

The city of Vancouver faces increased costs just as businesses and homeowners do. However, as stewards of the public purse, we need to work harder to innovate and pursue partnerships to make efficient use of public funds. This is something that was absent from the conversation.

The city’s 2020 budget document stated that cost pressures will continue for the next 10 years, making it “difficult to balance the budget with a reasonable level of tax and fee increases.” The report also proposed to find future opportunities to “offset the city’s increased cost structure and continued cost pressures.”

We need to turn this on its head and challenge the cost structure and service delivery itself. The city’s own budget document tells us the current structure and path is not sustainable.

In 2015, the city of Vancouver financial outlook foreshadowed that increased costs related to first responders would put significant pressure on the city’s budget. “These cost increases would need to be offset by increased revenues through fees or property tax, or by reduced expenditures or staffing levels,” claimed the report by staff.

In the following year, the city’s financial outlook anticipated the “potential for a significant gap between the growth in expenses and the growth in revenues.”

In other words, the warning signs have been there for years.

Yet, since that time the number of full-time equivalents staff has increased by nearly 1,000. The previous council was repeatedly warned that costs were rising faster than inflation and that corrective measures such as process improvements, information technology transformation and review of service delivery models were necessary to address “higher costs of labour, facilities and operations.”

So, as someone who was elected to make sure our government finances are sustainable, I have to ask: Why are we failing to heed the warnings of staff for half a decade or more?

Canadians expect dependable and affordable government services without overburdening them with high taxes. Vancouver City Council has a duty to make that happen.