Vancouver spent more than $300K on office furniture during the pandemic's early days
Vancouver City Hall is seen in June 2019. (Pete Cline / CTV News Vancouver)
VANCOUVER -- Staff working for the City of Vancouver spent more than $300,000 on office furniture between January and May, a period that coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and dire warnings from Mayor Kennedy Stewart about the city's finances.
The $316,800 worth of furniture was purchased as part of a $2.6 million renovation of parts of the second floor of city hall, spending that was approved in December in the city's capital budget.
On Thursday, Stewart announced he had asked the city manager to review the purchases.
"Last budget cycle, all parties voted for the capital plan, which is how we continually upgrade city hall," the mayor said. "However, council doesn't vote on furniture, and so I was disappointed like others yesterday to see that this purchase had been made when we are in, you know, really quite tough financial times."
Asked whether the city might return the furniture, Stewart said "that will be part of the review."
According to city staff, a steering committee of "senior leaders" reviewed the project at the start of the pandemic and decided to continue with the renovation.
Staff said their rationale was that the work was already underway and would be less disruptive to employees who normally worked in that part of the building but had begun working from home because of the coronavirus.
The part of city hall being renovated hadn't had any major improvements in 30 years, according to the city, but the purchases of pricey furniture continued even as the pandemic took an economic toll on the city and its residents.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federations called on the city and Stewart specifically to return what it described as "luxury chairs and office furniture."
“Wasting taxpayers’ money like this is gross at the best of times,” said Kris Sims, the B.C. director of the CTF. “To spend taxpayers’ money buying expensive designer office chairs while thousands of us struggle with reduced salaries and lost businesses is a slap in the face."
Stewart said he has discussed the matter with councillors and their focus going forward will be on "making sure that all necessary funds are spent on tackling COVID and getting us back on track."
In mid-April, Stewart warned that widespread defaults on property tax payments by out-of-work residents would wreak havoc on the city's budget.
"If 25 per cent of homeowners do end up defaulting on their property taxes, we could shed up to an additional $325 million in revenues," he said at the time. "Losing more than half-a-billion dollars in operating funds in 2020 would devastate the city's financial position, forcing us to liquefy assets and exhaust every reserve fund we have – just to avoid insolvency."
Holding back money that had been allocated for new office furniture wouldn't make much of a difference in the sort of apocalyptic scenario Stewart was describing, but the city's continued purchases didn't match the mayor's messaging.