Property taxes could go up due to fentanyl crisis
Published Wednesday, December 7, 2016 1:41PM PST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 7, 2016 3:45PM PST
The City of Vancouver is looking for ways to fund its response to a record number of drug overdoses, including a property tax hike of an additional 0.5 per cent.
At a meeting Wednesday, the city debated a proposal that included funding the battle against drugs like fentanyl with a large chunk of money from the hike.
The latest numbers released by the province show more than 600 people have died of overdoses in the first 10 months of 2016. Many of the deaths have been linked to fentanyl, an opioid considered to be significantly stronger than drugs like heroin.
Because of its strength, and its lower price tag, fentanyl is often mixed in with other drugs then sold to unsuspecting users.
The increase in overdoses is so dire that volunteers have set up a pop-up supervised injection site in an alley in the Downtown Eastside, and the province is providing a $5-million funding boost for emergency health services.
But officials say that more services are needed in areas like the DTES, including services aimed at addressing issues like poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health. The Vancouver Fire Department also wants to hire 16 more firefighters for Fire Hall No. 2, located at the corner of Powell and Main streets, to help deal with the fentanyl crisis.
Dustin Bourdeaudhuy, the vice-president of Vancouver Fire Fighters' Union Local 18, said the "overwhelming rise in call volume over the last year is staggering."
A year ago, firefighters were taking approximately 500 to 600 calls a month, and were one of the busiest departments in Canada. Last month, firefighters took 1,200.
"It's unsustainable with the staffing we have down there. Guys are burning out. The mental stress, the physical stress of it is too much," Bourdeaudhuy told CTV.
He said firefighters "felt abandoned," but appreciated a visit from the mayor last week.
"We're asking the mayor and city council, with the 2017 budget coming up in the next week, that they find the money to staff a fire truck that's already there – we just need people to staff it – to help with the pressures of call volume."
A memo directed to city managers, the mayor and council says first responders have had to take on new training, new responsibilities and an increased workload because of the overdose crisis.
The budget currently proposed for 2017 includes a 3.4 per cent property tax hike, with a "significant level of new investment" meant to target projects that would help those affected by the overdose crisis.
The proposal includes $1.8 million of the money brought in by the tax hike specifically slated for the DTES.
But the city's general manager of Finance, Risk and Supply Chain Management suggests an additional tax hike of 0.5 per cent, on top of the 3.4, to add to the fentanyl response.
Patrice Impey said it is "unclear if the crisis has peaked or if it will continue to worsen," but that the city should prepare incase the situation escalates.
In the proposal that will be voted on next week, she suggests collecting more money from taxpayers which could be spent training frontline staff, enhancing mental health support for first responders and increasing staff at shelters and outreach programs.
The extra money could also build a new community policing centre, fund a youth education program, create more shelter spaces and cover the costs of cleaning up public spaces.
"An additional .5% in property tax would provide an additional $3.5 million available for programs or initiatives," the memo says.
"That, in addition to the regular Council Contingency of $4 million would give Council $7.5 million that could be available to direct to initiatives noted above or new opportunities as needed to address the crisis."
But councillors with the opposing Non-Partisan Association say the city should look at other options that don't rely on an increase in taxes.
Melissa De Genova said the governing Vision Vancouver party should be looking within its own budget first after promising voters they'd make affordability a priority.
"There's a huge concern that the taxpayer can't bear any more," she said, adding that she's had several emails from residents saying they can't afford an increase.
"Why haven't they asked the province to pick up the tab here? Increase the ambulance service?"
She said she felt the city's willingness to charge taxpayers "sends a signal to the province" that if the municipal government is willing to pay for this, it would also be willing to pick up the tab for other things like the issue of housing affordability.
And George Affleck called the focus on fentanyl a "distraction" from the fact that Vision Vancouver is suggesting an increase of 5 per cent in property taxes and other fees. Should the fentanyl proposal be approved, Vancouverites could face a property tax hike of 3.9 per cent, plus a 1.2 per cent increase in fees, he said.
"This .5 per cent increase is a distraction. It's emotional. It's not good governance, not how we manage our city," Affleck said.
He said the crisis is not just isolated to Vancouver, and is a provincial and national issue as well.
"It shouldn't be a Vancouver-made solution. We have to work with the province."
With files from CTV Vancouver's Mi-Jung Lee and The Canadian Press