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In pandemic response, one size does not fit all

Dene Moore: ‘There are two British Columbias, urban and rural. To ignore the divide is to increase it.’
A long way from Vancouver, in pretty much every way.

Prince George has closed its arenas until who-knows-when, and the grass is getting pretty shaggy at many municipal parks throughout B.C.

The City of Kamloops predicts a revenue shortfall this year between $7 million and $12 million, and Vancouver’s mayor has said the city is at risk of going bankrupt.

Prince George staff estimate the northern hub city is losing about $1 million a month in revenues since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Municipal governments have perhaps the most direct and immediate impact on our daily lives. We walk on their streets, play in their parks, and pay their parking fees.

The smallest level of government has an outsized role, often on the front lines of issues like homelessness, public health emergencies, affordable housing, roads, recreation and snow removal. They are more knowledgeable about the local population and circumstances, and most deft at deploying resources where and as needed.

Yet they have the least power to customize responses, as we saw when the provincial state of emergency overrode municipal measures early in the pandemic response. They have fairly few sources of revenue, and those sources have taken a massive hit.

Last week, the federal government announced a $19 billion “Safe Restart” to help provinces and municipalities offset the ongoing costs of the pandemic measures, including an unspecified amount for joint funding with provinces and territories for municipalities.

The provincial government announced this week $1 billion in matching funds for local governments and public transit.

The president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities calls it a positive step.

“COVID-19 has impacted every local government in the province – both with revenue losses from key service areas like public transit or recreation services, but with additional costs to implement health and safety guidelines,” says Maja Tait, mayor of Sooke.

Earlier, the province announced that municipalities will be able to maintain a deficit for this year, which they normally can’t. But they have to bring their books back into balance by the end of 2021.

Towns and cities in B.C. will be able to borrow interest-free from internal capital reserves (normally savings to pay for future infrastructure needs such as roads or buildings) to cover operating expenses.

Those steps gave municipalities some breathing room, “but everyone recognized that was a short-term solution,” Mayor Tait says.

The federal Safe Restart program could make a real difference, she says, but the details are yet to come.

The province’s announcement of matching funding is a good sign, she says.

“In the meantime, you will find that local governments have taken a range of actions to manage the financial challenge internally. Some places have laid off occasional or seasonal workers or rejigged capital plans. What we are hearing from many members is that they are stretched, and that the impacts will multiply the longer the pandemic goes on. It would appear that the biggest impact is being felt in communities that fund public transit services, which is why a focus on transit funding has been emphasized in our outreach with the province.”

The impact of COVID-19 on municipalities will play out much longer than the virus itself. We should hope that impact includes a review of the political power structure.

For rural and remote communities in particular, some health measures put in place to safeguard high-density urban areas were unnecessary, frustrating, and potentially costly.

There are two British Columbias, urban and rural. To ignore the divide is to increase it.

Arriving at a remote camping site in April in the Cariboo to find a “Closed due to COVID” sign is ridiculous at best, a provocation at worst.

Certainly, it casts in a new light the decision not to release locations for COVID infections. It would only have exacerbated the frustration.

When the heady scent of hand sanitizer clears in rural and remote communities – many already economically reeling from the forestry crisis – these communities will need unique solutions to a set of problems very foreign to our urban cousins.

We should commend the province’s health officer and officials for their handling of the pandemic. B.C.’s COVID-19 tally to date shows just how deftly they handled this crisis.

But that success – so far – shouldn’t stop us from a sober second look. After all,  by most accounts, we will go through this again before science can come to the rescue.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.