The City of Quesnel’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has come in many different forms in a variety of departments.
Mayor Bob Simpson and City Manager Byron Johnson provided an update to council on some of the measures being taken and how the pandemic has affected the City’s finances and operations during the electronic council meeting on March 31.
As chair of Financial Sustainability and Audit Committee (FSAC), Simpson reported out from committee meetings before the COVID-19 pandemic, where the committee members looked at the City’s five-year financial plan bylaw pre-COVID.
Council has already approved the capital plan and the operating plan around this plan, and FSAC is recommending moving into the bylaw stage for the five-year financial plan, even with all the uncertainty around COVID-19.
“We’re trying to work with the Province around issues around tax deferral and waiving of penalties and all of the things that are out there,” said Simpson. “Some communities are proceeding because we’re on a timeline, and then we would, if we need to, do an amendment on the adjustments, and that way, we would still track on the required timeline to meet our budget and taxation requirements.”
Simpson told council the City has “very solid” access to the provincial government, and he and some of the other northern mayors recently had a conference call with the premier give him information about what is going on in these communities and where some of the gaps are.
Simpson was encouraged that the Province understands that for northern communities like Quesnel, this is the fourth year in a row with a major disruptive event after two years of wildfires and 2019’s mill closures, and our communities need a different response from the Province than communities that are experiencing their first disruption.
“We don’t know what impact this is going to have on our forest sector, our primary employer, but in this one, we also have our other primary employers, our small and medium-sized enterprises, and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses is saying 30 per cent may not come back and so on, all of that information has to be taken into account in driving our transition strategy,” he said.
Simpson says the City is gathering information about where it is losing revenue and feeding it to the Province.
“When the government makes a decision on transit, that’s a loss of revenue for us,” he said. “When they make a decision on closing casinos, that’s a loss of revenue to us. Our airport’s not operating at a normal level. Rocky Mountaineer is not operating. We had to cancel Minerals North.”
Simpson says the City is looking for clarity from the provincial government around whether or not it will be equipped to defer property taxes. The ability for tax deferrals and waiving penalties on property taxes is set by the Province through the Community Charter and Municipal Tax regulations, not by the City. Property taxes are currently due July 2.
“We’ve got reserves, so as a community, we would be able to cover off not collecting our taxes in July, but there are many communities that would not have that financial ability,” said Simpson. “So if there’s a directive to defer taxes, there are a lot of communities that would basically have to shut down all of their services because they couldn’t pay people and they couldn’t keep it running.”
The City of Quesnel activated its Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) Level 1 in late March, which has brought together the primary agencies involved in this public health emergency — the City, Northern Health as the lead agency, School District 28, B.C. Housing and emergency services.
Simpson says the City’s bylaw officers have been equipped and sanctioned to deal with the public health orders if there’s any non-compliance, and they are educating residents about social distancing, as opposed to applying fines.
“We’re getting updates from bylaw on a daily basis and having conversations with the RCMP,” he said. “As a community, with very few exceptions, we’re very much in full compliance at the business level and people socially isolating and trying to remain at home as much as possible. We do have some pockets, and the Riverfront Trail, if it’s sunny gets a bit busy, and bylaw were done there just reminding some people gently about social distancing, but I did a walkabout today downtown and drove around the town, and I think we’re in compliance.”
Bylaw is reporting on the business front, there is 100 per cent compliance, and no enforcement action has been needed, according to Simpson.
Johnson says since the EOC was activated, City staff have been meeting daily.
They have also been meeting regularly with CUPE, as some of the shutdowns of City facilities have resulted in layoffs to CUPE members.
“There’s a provision for that within our contract, so we have been meeting with CUPE to make them aware of what’s going on, and in addition, CUPE has been able to tell us what some of their concerns are around trying to maintain social distancing,” said Johnson. “So far, it’s a good back and forth conversation.’
Essential services are being maintained within the city.
Johnson says the City’s key services, such as potable water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, street maintenance and Riverfront Trail maintenance, are all fully functional. The public washrooms downtown and on the trail have been maintained, and the City has gone to an accelerated cleaning schedule to try to make them as safe as possible. As well, the City recently installed temporary portable washrooms and hand washing stations at Baker Creek Park and Ceal Tingley Park.
Police and bylaw services are being maintained, and the fire department is maintained at a response level only, with no weekly fire practices.
BC Transit regular routes and HandyDART bus are operating, and fares have been eliminated.
With all the changes going on, Simpson says the City is still delivering all its core services.
“I don’t think we’re seeing any drop off in the public service delivery we need to deliver on,” he said. “We’re still tracking.”
The City’s economic development department has changed its focus away from tourism and towards helping local businesses.
“Right now, there is so much information coming out from every level of government about grants that are available that they are keenly focused on trying to understand what the grant opportunities are and, working with Community Futures as a team, trying to get businesses to understand the grants that are out there and to apply for them,” said Johnson. “Once grant applications start, there’s an expectation that our grant writer will be quite heavily engaged in grant writing for several of the businesses as well. It’s going to be an interesting time for them because the focus is clearly not on tourism at this time.”
Simpson says the City has started a business roundtable with the three business improvement associations, the Chamber of Commerce and Community Futures, and they have committed to making sense out of support programs so they can help businesses access every dollar that is available to them.
Coun. Mitch Vik, who is president of the Quesnel Downtown Association, says support will be needed to navigate all the different provincial and federal programs.
“There’s so much confusion about these programs, and information is slow to come, so it’s going to hit really hard, and there’s going to be a lot of interest in a short amount of time, so the better prepared we are to answer those questions, the better it will be,” he said.