While a made-in-B.C. system of doling out COVID-19 relief funds to municipalities has raised a few questions and eyebrows, only one of the province’s mayors seems to have publicly complained.
And after Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart blasted the province last week for an arrangement he says short-changes bigger cities, he has drawn criticism of his own for that approach.
The federal government announced its “Safe Restart Agreement” in July , which included $2 billion to support municipalities struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. The feds allocated that money on a per capita basis to provincial and territorial governments, who would then distribute it to municipalities. B.C.’s per capita allocation came to about $270 million from the feds, which the province then matched dollar-for-dollar, meaning $540 million for local governments.
Stewart apparently expected the B.C. government would, like the feds, use a per capita calculation when spreading that money around. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.
As B.C.’s local governments learned last week, instead of distributing a certain number of dollars-per-resident to each city, town and regional district, the province used what they called an “adjusted population formula,” through which every local government gets the same base amount of $169,000, and then additional funding per person that decreases as the population goes up.
The formula was “designed to ensure that larger municipalities receive more money than smaller ones, but that smaller municipalities receive higher per capita funding than larger ones,” Municipal Affairs deputy minister Kaye Krishna wrote in a letter last week to municipal governments. “This is because small municipalities often lack a diverse tax base and the economies‐of‐scale to easily restart their operations.”
This was not the approach taken by other provinces, which had already distributed funding to local governments.
“It’s definitely a unique British Columbia model,” said Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Garth Frizzell, who is also a Prince George city councillor. “The Safe Restart has been critical, and we’re really welcoming it, but what the implications are of the B.C. government’s model, that remains to be seen.”
Stewart, though, didn’t hesitate to slam the province, and Premier John Horgan personally, for this approach, saying big cities are the ones shouldering particularly heavy burdens like increased policing costs and homelessness, while their COVID has disrupted their revenues even worse than it has for smaller communities.
Some observers say that while there’s a logic to that rationale, the sheer size of the per capita discrepancy seems noteworthy.
It would be one thing if a smaller municipality like West Vancouver received 25 or 35 per cent more per capita funding than their big-city neighbours Vancouver and Surrey — but they received more than 350 per cent more. Right next to West Van, little Lions Bay, with fewer than 1,400 residents, received 1,600 per cent more per capita funding than Vancouver or Surrey.
“If you count people like this, it’s going to ruffle some feathers,” said Jens von Bergmann, founder of the Vancouver-based data analysis company MountainMath , who ran the numbers to determine how many dollars-per-resident flowed to each B.C. municipality. “It’s just a weird way to do this.”
Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest said: “There is a policy rationale there, it’s just the scope of it seems somewhat curious. … The magnitude of the difference does certainly raise an eyebrow.”
But if other big city mayors do share Stewart’s frustrations, they’re not airing them publicly.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities issued a friendly statement thanking the province, as did some individual cities, including Surrey, which received the second-lowest per capita funding after Vancouver.
Victoria, like Vancouver, is struggling with a serious homelessness crisis , but its $6.5 million grant works out to less than half the per capita funding that flowed to neighbouring Oak Bay, one of Canada’s most affluent communities . But Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps issued a statement thanking the provincial government for the funding, praising them for recognizing “the challenges of municipalities across the B.C.”
Burnaby received $9.8 million, about a third of the $30 million Mayor Mike Hurley figures they would have seen if funds were doled out on a per capita basis.
“But we’re relieved to receive at least some funding, it’s going to be a big help,” Hurley said. “I do understand that many of the smaller communities have different challenges, so I understand what’s trying to be done.”
Hurley said he understands Stewart’s concerns and the unique pressures Vancouver faces as the region’s most populous urban centre, adding: “Of course, we would all like to have gotten more, but at the same time, we’re thankful that at least we got something.”
Stewart’s public reproach of the province, apparently alone among B.C. mayors, drew criticism from one of his own Vancouver council colleagues.
Non-Partisan Association Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung said the mayor’s approach looks like an example of “How not to win friends and influence people you need to work with.”
The city and the province “need to have a really strong, close working relationship,” Kirby-Yung said, “and I just don’t think that calling them out in that way is helpful.”
Corinne Havard, a spokeswoman for Canada’s Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic Leblanc, said: “The final decision on the distribution of the funds lies with the province.”