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Nanaimo citizens ask about housing and homelessness at budget-focused town hall meeting

E-town hall meeting was held Monday as public engagement component of financial planning process
Emergency personnel and city officials at the scene of a fire on Wesley Street last Thursday. Nanaimo city council members were asked about housing and homelessness spending at a town hall meeting Monday. (News Bulletin file photo)

Citizens have questions about a potential property tax increase, but also want to know how housing and homelessness issues might factor into the financial plan.

The City of Nanaimo held a budget-focused e-town hall meeting Monday as part of the process in putting together the 2021-25 financial plan.

After a fire last Thursday at an encampment on Wesley Street led to the city dismantling the camp and displacing approximately 60 people experiencing homelessness, council was asked what sort of spending was planned on the housing and homelessness files.

Mayor Leonard Krog said council is sympathetic and has worked hard with the provincial government and agencies to secure resources to address homelessness.

“It is not the city’s jurisdiction, legal responsibility, nor does it have the resources to deliver those kinds of services,” Krog said. “We do not provide mental health care, we do not provide addiction services, we do not provide social assistance, we do not provide health care generally.”

Coun. Ben Geselbracht said it’s “extremely important” that the city continue to keep raising the issue with the provincial and federal governments.

“We need to evaluate how we’re allocating our resources as a whole society and why there’s such a gap to have not enough to be able to support these people with roofs over their head and the proper health services,” Geselbracht said.

Councillors Sheryl Armstrong, Erin Hemmens and Don Bonner mentioned different provincial and civic initiatives including permanent supportive housing and affordable housing projects, a navigation centre for people experiencing homelessness, a rent bank, and $500,000 reserved in the city budget to address recommendations in a health and housing task force report expected Dec. 14. Councillors noted that staff members do a lot of work on housing and homelessness, even if it doesn’t always show up as line items in the budget.

Bonner said staff work on identifying, zoning and permitting properties to accommodate housing, and Hemmens said there’s a lot of “horsepower” in the city’s social planning staff members, whom she called the foundation of the city’s approach to addressing homelessness.

“We have social planners on the ground who are responsible for liaising, co-ordinating, supporting all of our social service agencies and bringing all of that work together,” Hemmens said.

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Some of the other questions raised by the public at Monday’s e-town hall related to bike lanes, sidewalks and new staff positions in the budget.

“We don’t spend your money recklessly. We might have differences of opinion on priorities, but it’s all debated fully,” said Coun. Ian Thorpe. “Some decisions go one way, some the other, but hopefully they’re all responsible decisions.”

Asked about the projected 3.6-per cent property tax increase compared with the rate of inflation, Krog suggested the city’s expenditures differ from household purchases.

“We don’t buy many groceries at the City of Nanaimo, but we buy a lot of construction pipe. We pay for a lot of pavement. We pay for a number of goods and services, particularly construction costs in the general sense that are rising at a much higher rate than the consumer rate of inflation,” the mayor said.

Thorpe noted that the city commits to a 1.0-per cent annual tax increase for asset management, so two-per cent inflation takes the tax increase to 3.0 per cent as a starting point.

“We’re trying to limit anything beyond that and I think so far we’ve done a pretty good job,” he said. “We’re still working on it.”

Thorpe said all councillors want to keep taxes as low as possible and Krog said residents also depend on the city to be able to deliver services.

“Would we love to have a zero tax increase? Yes, that would be nice,” Krog said. “Is it realistic and possible to continue to deliver services in the middle of a pandemic with that kind of a tax increase, at zero? No, it’s not.”

The City of Nanaimo will continue the budgeting process at a special finance and audit committee meeting Wednesday, Dec. 9.

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