COVID-19 Crisis and Local Government Staffing in Cowichan

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OPINION

The City of Vancouver faces the threat of bankruptcy and is calling for help from the provincial government, …hundreds of staff have been laid off to limit the financial hemorrhaging under the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

We hear next to nothing about the situation with local governments in Cowichan, with the notable exception of North Cowichan, whose mayor has laid it on the line about what that community is doing as offices and facilities are shutdown.

What about Duncan, Lake Cowichan, Ladysmith and the Cowichan Valley Regional District? A survey of their web sites offers no insight into what type of staff measures, or cost cutting, are being taken as, they too, close offices and facilities.

The Cowichan Post offered mayors and board chairs an open opportunity to post reports, unedited, on our Facebook page about the measures they are taking to manage the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only Mayor Siebring responded when he posted detailed information on North Cowichan’s approach. He has kept the public further informed about a meeting this week when council will be looking at property taxes and finances under this health emergency. That is being proactive.

This news blog then emailed every elected local government official in Cowichan asking the same question about their responses to this emergency and repeated the offer to run their responses unedited on The Cowichan Post Facebook page. No responses as of this writing.

Its not good enough, and its certainly not open and transparent, for local governments to withhold the kind of information we have requested. Residents have every right to know what their elected governments are doing to protect the public’s financial interests. Many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Cowichan residents are without work for the duration and deserve to know what their governments are doing to cut costs during this shutdown period. They are going to be paying the bill when this crisis is over, even if payment of taxes is deferred. Deferred means pay later, but it still means pay.

Our offer to publish, unedited, the plans to manage the financial implications of the COVID-19 crisis still stands. The longer elected officials delay the more people will suspect information is being deliberately withheld from them.

Mayor Siebring’s original response follows:

Happy to respond here.

You ask several questions.

First, to the budget. We were set to finalize the numbers at a meeting on March 27th. At that time, we were looking at a tax increase of just over 4%. But I canceled that meeting, and Council has asked staff for a comprehensive re-work of the budget based on the impacts that will be felt as a result of the COVID situation.

And to be clear, those impacts are not exclusively about “savings.” We are also seeing substantial reductions in non-tax revenue; things like recreation programming fees, building permits, rezoning applications, etc. So it’s a two-sided equation.

Bottom line is that we’re expecting that report at a meeting on April 15th. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t given staff any concrete direction.. (“We want a zero percent increase.” “We want a tax cut.” “We want a 2% increase.”) The numbers will be based on their best judgement, and then it will be up to Council to review and determine whether the numbers are realistic, or if staff has cut deeply enough or perhaps left too much money in the budget. And it’s also worth remembering that certain projects will have to go ahead, if not this year, then next year. And an artificially low tax rate this year will lead to an artificially inflated increase next year.

As to deadlines, North Cowichan was the first municipality in the Province to ask the Minister of Municipal Affairs to consider moving those deadlines. Right now, we have to have our budget finalized by May 15th. Initially, we thought that might be problematic because of statutory notice requirements. (We normally have to publish “Notice” of Financial Bylaws in the paper between 3rd reading and adoption, which would have added considerable time to the process. That has been at least partly alleviated by temporary changes to the Local Government Act waiving those notice requirements, and allowing us to do all three readings and adoption in a single meeting. So the shift of that deadline is less important than it was when we first asked for it.)

We have also asked for an extension to the deadline for tax payment. That deadline – mandated by the Province – is normally July 2nd. On the understanding that people might be facing critical cash flow problems in July, we’ve asked that deadline to be extended to late summer/early fall. While there’s been no formal decision on this yet, the response from the Province has been very positive, and I am getting the distinct impression that it’s not a matter of “if” they’ll grant this extension.. it’s more a question of “when” they’ll announce it.

And it’s worth noting that some other municipalities have now asked for a more broad application of the “property tax deferral program”, which allows people to put off paying their (residential) property taxes. Right now, the program is limited to seniors and those with children at home, leaving out a broad swath of folks who don’t fit in either category. So that is also under consideration.

One other thing on “taxes”, before I move to your question about staffing levels. It’s worth noting here that different municipalities are responding in different ways. For example, in Port Alberni, their Council revisited their budget last night. Initially, like us, their increase was going to be just over 4%. Last night, they cut that to a “zero increase” budget.

But Calgary City Council also held a meeting yesterday. And decided to keep their increase at 7.5%.

For the record, I consider both of those responses to be defensible, on the understanding that doing what Port Alberni did will definitely see a larger increase next year, while Calgary’s decision will keep the rate of increase fairly steady year over year. (Although 7.5% does seem high to me, especially in the economic context they were finding themselves in even before COVID.) But purely as a matter of policy (the “politics” and “optics” aside), both decisions can be legitimately defended.

You also asked about staffing levels. Our CAO, Ted Swabey, was asked this same question last week, and responded with the following email:

“At this time we have effectively laid off 68 casual employees and 29 contract staff, issued working notice of layoff to 28 permanent staff pursuant to our Collective Agreement with CUPE Local 358 and have rescinded seasonal employment offers to 14 temporary seasonal employees who were scheduled to start in the coming weeks. To-date, there are 139 persons whose employment with the District has been impacted by COVID-19.

Our COVID-19 Rapid Response Team is analyzing our immediate, short and potentially longer-term workforce needs in the face of this pandemic. We are also analyzing which portions of our workforce may continue to contribute productively while working remotely, and which portions of our workforce could be safely re-deployed to other duties in response to COVID-19. Admittedly, this analysis work has proven difficult in a very fluid situation. For example, the almost daily escalating recommendations from the Provincial Health Officer have required us to repeatedly review and adjust our analysis since the onset of this crisis.

We are continually monitoring our workforce and community needs as this situation evolves, we are keeping open communication with CUPE Local 358, and we are liaising with other local governments in the Cowichan Valley Regional District.”

Hope all this information helps.

Thanks.

Al Siebring,
Mayor,
District Municipality of North Cowichan

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