Mayor Jonathan Cote discusses NewWestminster issues July 2020
“Covid 19 ...really turned everything on it's head. It has really impacted all aspects of society, ” says New Westminster's Mayor Jonathan Cote in a recent interview with NewWest.tv on July 16. It is four months into the pandemic and the City has had to deal with things that weren't even contemplated in January.
For starters, it has affected “how the city operates its business.” As he explains, the city was unable to provide many of the services that residents usually use, such as recreational services, the library, and services provided at City Hall, itself, where citizens get building permits and pay parking tickets, among other things.
While property taxes have been on track, the Mayor said, the loss of revenues from city services and other sources such as the usual $6 million from Starlight Casino taxes has amounted to a loss of approximately $10 million or about 5% to 15% of the city's expected revenues for the year. The city has had to take on the creative challenge of dealing with the usual city business, to the extent possible, and also emerging issues too, while, at he same time, needing to balance it's budget as prescribed by law. The Mayor extolled the hard work and creative energy that city staff and Council have brought to bear.
The transit system has taken a huge hit here in New West and the Lower Mainland as it as in all of Canada's big cities, according to the Mayor. Transit fares and gas taxes are the foundation of the transit system's operations. With personal driving down, and transit use having dipped to as low at 17% of the norm in April, and although up now to 40%, the expected budget shortfall this year is half a million dollars.
The Mayors' Council and Translink, recognizing the need to keep transit going particularly so essential services workers could get around, kept the transit system going with some small reductions in service. Financial help from the provincial government bought them some time. Asked about the long-term stability of the system, the Mayor said that both the federal and provincial governments understand the important role of public transit and will likely step in to help. “My instinct tells me that there is going to be support; it's just what level of support still remains to be seen, because the reality is that all three levels of government are under tremendous financial strain because all levels of government are doing things, having to support things, that back in January we would have never imagined.”
One of the most immediate challenges, the city had to take on, says the Mayor, was dealing with the City's vulnerable populations – the homeless, the addicted, and those living in poverty. They certainly bore the brunt of the crisis, he says. A task force to deal with their issues was the first to be struck. Among the things accomplished: the City worked with BC Housing to setup a temporary emergency shelter in the high school gym. They also immediately established a new venue for the food bank as the church, from where it had been operating, closed. They set one up in Tipperary Park with the support of the Vancouver Foundation and the United Way. The Mayor said that a lot of non-profits have stepped up to help during this time.
One service that the Mayor said he had never contemplated in advance of the pandemic was the need for portable toilets in key locations in the city. With so many businesses closed, and nowhere for the homeless to go to the washroom, the City had to set up portable toilets in key locations in the city. He also said that addiction overdoses have escalated during the crisis, while they were on a downward track just prior to it's onset: another sad fact of this changed world.
The Mayor also spoke to the need for affordable housing which has been a key priority for the Council this term. Fortuitously, the modular housing project for the homeless in Queensborough is opening almost immediately to be administered by the Elizabeth Fry Society. Speaking to the larger picture of what the Council has done and is working on, the Mayor says that the City's recent policies to protect renters from renovictions, is proving to be effective. Acknowledging that there is a large need for non-market affordable housing and social housing, he says the City has a number of proposals out to work with non-profit organizations to set up properties. He says there has been some push back with some projects and finding ways to alleviate people's fears has been important, but in general, he says, the community is pretty empathic to the needs.
As to whether anything has fallen off the table from the Council's ambitious agenda, the Mayor says that there are no plans to strike anything, but some things are being delayed, most notably, the new Canada Games Pool. It was slated to begin construction this spring (2020) but is being delayed until next year.
As for issues with regard to actions mitigating climate change, another Council priority, the Mayor says that in some ways, the pandemic has opened up new possibilities to create sustainable transportation options, now that there is more interest in walking and cycling. To that end, the city has closed Front Street and 6th Street in the Uptown area on weekends. The Front Street closure allows walkers and cyclists to get to the Fraser River paths in Sapperton and beyond. Also, the new interest in electric bikes will also have a positive impact, he says, as it makes New Westminster a good cycling location, being a compact, urban area, but which has notable negative side - “it's one big hill”. Electric bikes will overcome that problem.
They are also continuing with their plans to increase the tree canopy on NewWest from 17% to 27%. The challenge is to get more mature shade trees and trees that are good at sequestering carbon in our city, both along city streets and in parks, he said. As for parks, the City's goal is to have a park within 5 minutes walking distance for everyone in the city. There are a few areas where that is not the case, the Mayor says, but the City has just opened a small park in the Brow the Hill area, which had been underserved.
The Mayor says that he has observed that the parks have become increasingly occupied since the pandemic. He says that he has seen more people using the park near his home in the last 3 months than he has in the last 3 years. Before it was mostly dog walkers, now there are picnickers and others. He says that his instinct is that citizens will continue to consider parks an important part of the life, post-pandemic. Will this enhance the citizenry's interest in increasing the tree canopy?
With racism now top of mind for engaged citizens since the death of Floyd George, the Mayor was asked whether the city is looking at the issue of racism. As he pointed out, reconciliation and inclusion are embedded principles in the City's Strategic Plan, but current affairs have certainly sped up the City's focus on creating action plans. For example, The Police Board, he says, has just passed an important motion to look into how policing can be done differently to deal with issues of race and issues that should perhaps fall out of the purview of the police, such as wellness checks. The Mayor says that having a police officer turning up at someone's home with a gun is probably not an ideal scenario for many situations. The City is looking to the province to set up a pilot project to examine other options where police response is not optimal. He acknowledges that coming from a privileged background, he doesn't personally know the lived experience of others, so that the City will be reaching out to get diverse voices from advocates.
Finally, as the Mayor has a Masters in Urban Studies, NewWest.tv asked him how he thought citys might change as a result of the pandemic. He says that he has no crystal ball, but his observations of changes in how people are living now, may have an impact the future. For example, during the first months of the pandemic, 50% of jobs in Metro Vancouver became home-based, compared to !6% before the its onset, so while some people will go back to offices, some may not. Also, people are staying closer to home, so this may be good for local shopping, although online shopping may increase – hard to say. Ever optimistic, the Mayor says, that the pandemic may open opportunities to make our cities even better.
By: Susan Millar