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Tax penalty deferrals; capital projects; hiring freeze on table as city deals with COVID-19-related revenue loss

Mayor Lyn Hall
Mayor Lyn Hall

What do you do when your revenue is off to the tune of about $1 million a month? You make changes.

That’s exactly what the City of Prince George is looking to do at a special finance and audit committee meeting Monday to deal with the impact on the city of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The impact started when the pandemic was announced and we closed all of our facilities,” said Mayor Lyn Hall. “We’re about $900,000 to $1.3 million a month in lost revenue to the city.”

The loss in revenue from closing the pools and the Civic Centre is about $580,00, which is offset somewhat ($165,0000) by part time workers not being scheduled.

The city receives 10 per cent of the gaming revenue from the Treasure Cove Casino which translates to $225,000 in lost revenue. Other items contribute to the loss of revenue such investments ($100,000); licencing and permitting ($130,000); off street parking ($160,000); sewer and water metering fees ($40,000 each); bylaw enforcement ($30,000) and parks ($8,000).

The city has experienced some cost savings during this period namely by not travelling and attending conferences, reduced fuel costs, hiring freezes, and the elimination of a cost of living increase for exempt staff.

Hall pointed out that the cancellation of events such as the World Women’s Curling Championships and the Cirque du Soleil have a huge impact on the city’s as well.

And as if lost revenue wasn’t enough, there’s another wild card for the city … property taxes.

Specifically, how many residents may not be able to pay their property taxes at the end of June. It’s certainly something that the city is examining.

“We’ve taken a look at the historical data on two fronts,” he said. “One is the percentage of people who pay property taxes within the time frame before the penalty kicks in and also on the utility bill side.”

He said the city will match that historical data with work the finance department is conducting now as to possible impacts. That work is not yet complete.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has used that data to predict a huge cash shortfall for that city and it asking the province for $200 million to help.

“It’s an option,” Hall said of asking the province for funding. “But we’re not there and I don’t anticipate that we will be there … We’ve got some flexibility.”

Monday’s meeting will look deferring the penalty on utility bills to the end of December, looking at reducing the proposed 3.44 per cent tax increase to just over two per cent. Part of that possible reduction in the tax rate increase will include hitting pause on about $25 million in capital projects until 2021.

“But we’ve still got about $90 million in capital projects that we’re going to move forward on 2020,” Hall said. “We’ve got infrastructure work that we need to do. We need to find that balance between being able to continue operationally on capital projects and the needs of our residents and businesses.”

The pandemic has had an impact on staffing as well. When the city closed its facilities about 100 part time staff, who would normally be scheduled to work at this time of year, have not be called in. Fifteen vacant positions, that have already been budgeted for, will not be filled at this time; and 13 summer labourer positions will not be filled.

The city has been given the authority to borrow from its own reserves, at no interest. However, Hall says, that would still be using city money.

“We’re borrowing from ourselves and at the end of the day we would have to pay that back,” he said.

The finance and audit committee will make recommendations which will then come before council on April 27.

Hall said he is heartened that there is lots of talk about what recovery looks like. Prince George is well-positioned to be on the leading edge of that recovery.

“We’re in a better position here because of the resource sector than in many areas of the country,” he said. “Once some of the restrictions are lifted, I think the major resource will jump on that right away.”

And he’s also heartened by the response to the pandemic by Prince George residents who enjoyed a little bit of sun yesterday, but were mindful of others.

“People are out in the parks, they are adhering to those conditions,” he said. “People are out in the fresh air, and there are conditions around that, but they still need to enjoy that. I’m really pleased to see that people are adhering to the social distancing.”

The message is simple:

“What we’re doing is working, but don’t stop. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, but we’re on the right track and thanks to everyone in the community for that.”

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