The real budget emergency had nothing to do with fentanyl

As expected, the City of Vancouver’s 1.8 billion dollar capital and operating budget for 2017 passed yesterday. Also, as (cynically) expected, the people of Vancouver were distracted by a last-minute emergency property tax increase of 0.5% to deal with the ongoing fentanyl crisis.

To be clear, the necessary additional funding for first responders isn’t optional. Emergency services are precisely what we pay taxes for and as we’ve been hearing for months now, our first responders —in particular our firefighters— need more resources to do the life saving work we expect of them.

Of course, there are very valid criticisms that federal and provincial governments need to do more to meet their jurisdictional obligations like funding paramedic/ambulance services, harm reduction, and treatment —but in an emergency, we need all hands on deck.

But when and why exactly did the fentanyl emergency become a last minute emergency budget item?

The City’s 2017 budget was developed over August-September of this year and first reviewed by council in October. Last week, on December 7, the mayor unexpectedly announced the new special emergency fentanyl response tax. 

Why such a hasty ad hoc measure just days before the budget vote? As far back as summer 2015, Vancouver firefighters were calling for more support at (DTES) Firehall #2; citing record-breaking call volume, overwhelmed staff, and stretched resources.

Since 2013, Vancouver had seen a steadily increasing number of fentanyl related overdose deaths, for which frontline workers have been consistently sounding the alarm. Earlier this year, record-breaking numbers of overdose deaths were reported province-wide in January and March —prompting BC’s chief medical office to declare a public health emergency in April to which Vancouver's mayor professed “grave concern” and promised the city would do everything we could. 

The mayor and provincial health minister Terry Lake furthered this emergency narrative in August, when they appealed to the federal government to ease Harper-era supervised injection service restrictions in response to the crisis, around the same time concerned residents started pop-up safe injection sites in the DTES.

So why then, in the wake of months and months of overwhelming and mounting signs of crisis did the city propose a special emergency budget amendment only last week?

The answer might be found in the city’s budget document itself. According to city-commissioned Insights West polling, only 17% of residential property owners and 16% of business property owners were willing to accept a 4% tax increase — and that approval is even lower for renters. With a proposed 3.9% tax increase, might this hastily crafted emergency tax have been a “wag the dog” style distraction? 

Vague on specifics as it may be, among the mostly sundry utilitarian expenses there are plenty of budget line items that might have otherwise lent some controversy: from a 16.6% increase in communications budget, upwards of $12 million for pedestrianizing Robson with plazas on either side of the downtown Art Gallery, $17 million in AAA bike lanes, another $17 million in Burrard Bridge bikelanes and suicide fencing, to upwards of $8 million increase in public works expenses “largely due to street use expenditure related to the Mobi public bike share system”.

No doubt there must have been some concern at City Hall around how citizens would react to the budget, on the heels of concerns that the city might be playing fast and loose with tax dollars after the discovery of a $1.5 million break accidentally given to local developer in part on account of a “lack of appropriate oversight”.

Vancouverites are already bracing for hefty tax increases (of which civic taxes make up only a portion) on news that BC Assessments arriving January 3 might see property values rise by as much as 50% which will impact everything from rents to the cost of goods and services.

Judging by responses I've been hearing: the meagre .05% increase to finance a legitimate, just, and necessary response to the overdose emergency has become an unfortunate sideshow, predictably polarizing opinion, and eliciting some harsh and heartless judgement. In my opinion, those criticisms are wrong-headed at best, and at worst downright cruel. Moreover, they've completely derailed legitimate conversation about the rest of the budget. 

This budget and the burden on local taxpayers deserved more scrutiny, not our response to the drug crisis
— unless you are asking what took us so long in the first place.