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In Vancouver’s Budget, Libraries Couldn’t Compete with Police

While police got a big budget increase, councillors say a last-minute funding boost to other departments was welcome.

Jen St. Denis 1 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

After campaigning on a promise to hire 100 more police officers, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim also announced spending on libraries, anti-racism initiatives, the fire department and city road maintenance as council headed into budget discussions Tuesday.

The extra funding package includes $3.4 million additional funding for police, bringing the total increase to the police budget to $28.7-million, or 8.3 per cent, compared with 2022. The extra funding brings the total net budget for the police to $373.4 million. The city’s total operating budget is $1.9 billion.

The $11.8 million in extra spending was approved by Sim and ABC councillors, who hold a comfortable majority on council.

Council also approved the entire operating budget, which comes with a hefty price tag. Vancouver taxpayers were warned the 2023 budget could see property taxes increase by 9.7 per cent, but the extra spending pushed that increase up to 10.7 per cent — one of the highest increases seen in recent years.

While Sim campaigned on a promise to not raise taxes to pay for his promises, he said Vancouver is facing a tough financial situation: inflation has pushed costs up, while revenues are still down compared to before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are greater pressures on the fire department and other first responders because of the overdose crisis and an increase in fires.

Sim said his administration recently reduced the cost of living for Vancouver residents by eliminating a 25-cent fee on non-reusable coffee cups.

In a controversial move, Sim’s administration has also earmarked $2.8 million to pay the provincially funded health authority to increase staffing to respond to mental health crises. Some of those mental health teams will be accompanied by police, but Vancouver Coastal Health is also creating a non-police response team. The city will have to come up with $7.9 million per year for those teams starting in 2024.

Crime and safety fears increased in Vancouver in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, sharply rising costs and more visible homelessness. But a survey of city residents done for the budget consultation process showed that respondents picked affordable housing, homelessness and social services as the top issues the city should invest in. Police services were just 16th on the list of 23 issues despite it being a major election campaign focus for the ABC party in October.

Kevin Lowe, the board chair of the Vancouver Public Library, told council that research shows libraries play an important role in reducing crime if they are “open and staffed with folks who have the resources and tools to work with people in different circumstances and situations.”

“This results in people who are off the street and in a welcoming place where they can read, learn and be entertained,” he said.

The Vancouver Public Library was asking for three social worker positions to help staff deal with an increase in abusive patrons and funding to be able to open several branches for longer hours. Lowe noted that libraries also provide safe public washrooms, another dire need in the city.

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle suggested an amendment to fund those requests for $695,000, an amount similar to the $600,000 ABC added to the budget for horticulture services.

But Boyle’s amendment was turned down by ABC councillors who said they were willing to fund one of the social worker positions at a cost of $110,000 but were not able to fund the rest of the positions or extra branch hours because of the city’s fiscal situation.

Boyle and Green councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry voted against $2.3 million of the proposed extra $3.7 million for policing, including $747,000 for a digital evidence management system, $415,000 for cell phones, $200,000 for a body-worn camera pilot and $909,408 for overtime to police protests.

“I think the conversation we should be having about community health and safety is how best can we improve these dollars to improve safety and livability and well-being for all residents,” Boyle said.

“What we saw in this budget was a very large increase in the police budget, when my small ask for two additional library staff to support residents who are struggling with mental health was shot down. [That] doesn’t seem to me like the right balance of how we’re allocating public funds to address community concerns.”

But Boyle, Fry and Carr said they were relieved to see funding for a range of anti-racism and accessibility initiatives as well as city infrastructure needs included in the extra funding proposed Tuesday.

But the three opposition councillors said they were concerned that climate change work is not fully funded in this budget.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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