The City of Nanaimo is hoping that more uniformed safety officers, downtown ambassadors and clean teams can make a difference in downtown safety.
City councillors, at a finance meeting Wednesday, April 20, voted unanimously to recommend full implementation of a downtown Nanaimo safety action plan at a cost of approximately $2.5 million annually.
The plan, presented by consultant Neilson Strategies, recommends 12 community safety officers, two permanent clean teams, a downtown ambassador program, a vandalism relief grant, additional parkade cleaning, four parks ambassadors for 2022, and more.
“This plan does not profess to be a panacea. It does not profess to be a holistic strategy that is going to solve all of the issues right back to root causes,” said Allan Neilson, principal of Neilson Strategies. “This is something that is much more tangible and much more immediate in impact and really seeks to make a visible difference in the immediate term.”
The community safety officers would replace some downtown security officers, and would work at night and into the wee hours when the city doesn’t have as much of a bylaw enforcement presence. The CSOs would be City of Nanaimo employees trained to deal with situations that may be unsafe, and would also provide people with information about bylaws and available social services and resources.
“It allows us to ramp up the number of people in uniform that can respond to these situations very quickly,” said consultant Bob Rich. “The RCMP would do a great job if we could have all the police officers that we wanted, but that’s not a reality that we’re living with right now.”
Coun. Ben Geselbracht said a system that is focused on the rules sometimes overlooks resources, and a system focused on resources sometimes overlooks rules.
“I think in general there’s been a bit of a divide in that approach and I’m really hoping that these CSOs can be a bit of an integrating force around rules and resources,” he said.
Geselbracht added that community safety officers are an emerging option for municipalities and “we are building the ship as we’re trying to fly it,” so “inter-agency and inter-departmental integration is going to be critical.”
The downtown ambassadors would be a volunteer position, envisioned primarily as a university practicum partnership. Coun. Don Bonner said it’s a “weak link” of the action plan to have a component that relies on volunteer commitments that could be withdrawn, but the consultant said there would be a lot of “safeguards” in terms of responsibilities, expectations and support.
Coun. Sheryl Armstrong said many of the approaches in the action plan have been tried before and haven’t been sustained over the years. She said she likes the idea of the city having greater oversight over downtown safety co-ordination so that there can potentially be greater continuity.
No councillors argued against implementing the action plan, though some lamented the cost. Bonner suggested the cost is a “surtax” on the municipality downloaded from the provincial government.
Coun. Tyler Brown made the motion for full implementation of the program rather than a phased approach. He said although he anticipates labour shortages could delay the hiring of a full complement of CPOs, staff should have the opportunity to attempt to fill those positions.
“I do think the problem on the streets warrants a fulsome and fully committed approach that shying away from, I don’t think does service to the problem. It also doesn’t serve the people that are living with this problem on the daily,” Brown said.
Coun. Erin Hemmens said she thinks the addition of community safety officers have potential to dramatically “change the dynamic of the downtown” especially as the city works on other aspects of the health and housing plan.
“I’m excited to see how this piece fits into the bigger piece of our broader investment around not just safety and security, but social well-being in Nanaimo,” she said.
Mayor Leonard Krog said the action plan addresses security, cleanliness and supports within reason.
“It speaks to all the things that are within the city’s jurisdiction,” he said.
Brown made the motion for full implementation of the program, which is expected to cost $1.5 million in 2022, $2.8 million in 2023 and $2.5 million in 2024 and beyond. As the spending is being added to the operational budget and is not a one-time cost, the money will come from taxation. A press release from the city noted that the program will result in a 0.9-per cent tax increase in 2022 and a 1.0-per cent increase in 2023.
Kevan Shaw, president of the Victoria Crescent Association, praised the plan and said a lot of people were consulted and were listened to, and the result is a “very comprehensive and well-put-together” plan. He’s optimistic it can offer not only results, but measurable ones, and thinks the city will get value for money.
“It really needs to be done,” Shaw said. “Not just for the sake of businesses in our area and people that live here, but to bring people from a city of 100,000 downtown and not feel afraid to shop and live.”