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'It’s not our decision’: City can’t offer Prince George tax break during COVID-19 pandemic

‘We have been kicking the tires looking for anything we can do.’
The City of Prince George gave an update on its COVID-19 response so far. (via Hanna Petersen)

Prince George along with the rest of the province, country and world is struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though it's taking a financial toll on many residents as businesses, workplaces and facilities close, at this time the city faces limited options in offering citizens breaks on taxes and utilities.

Mayor Lyn Hall and council addressed the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic during last night’s council meeting (March 23), also explaining whether or not the city will be able to provide a financial break for residents.

“Since last Thursday when it was made abundantly clear how gripping this pandemic is going to be, I’ve been working with staff and members of finance and audit to find out what kind of opportunities we have,” said Coun. Garth Frizzell, after the question was posed by Coun. Brian Skakun.

“We don’t have the power to change dates or to offer special agreements for business so we have been kicking the tires looking for anything we can do.”

Frizzell explained the city's methods are limited by the Community Charter, which determines when the city must collect.

Municipalities in B.C. don’t have the authority to change tax collection dates or waive interest for late payment as these are governed by provincial legislation.

In addition, nearly 30 per cent of the funds collected through property taxes are directly transferred to cover hospital and school taxes, the regional district, BC Assessment, and the Municipal Finance Authority.

“We heard an announcement from the provincial government, there are some measures they are considering, but it’s so new. We haven’t had the time to assess it and it doesn’t look like it will give us any leeway to make any changes yet so we are going ahead as expected right now.”

Frizzell says even if the province moves the tax deadlines forward, the city still faces the challenge of collecting enough money to pass onto the other agencies.

“We are all looking for any way we can help people out and it is just a matter of figuring out the ways so that it doesn’t lead us into trouble, and we are also looking ahead to what next year will bring because there’s a lot of speculation about this getting worse.”

Coun. Kyle Sampson added that Prince George is doing its best to see what it can do to help residents.

“I think it’s really important to stress it’s not our decision, unfortunately, but what we are doing around this table is talking about it and talking with the province. We are going to have conversations with our MLAs to see if they can help get the message across that we do need some aid for our residents and we are going to try to do our best to help manage that.”

Property taxes will continue to be due on the first Friday of July and utility payments for the first half of 2020 are due April 3 for properties on a flat rate.

Emergency Operations

Mayor Lyn Hall stressed the point that the city is taking direction from the provincial medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

City Manager Kathleen Soltis and director of community services and public safety Adam Davey, also gave an also update on the actions the city has taken thus far.

The city has closed all civic facilities including pools, rinks and the Civic Centre and has redeployed the arena staff to the custodial team to help keep public spaces especially clean.

City Hall remains open to assist the public, but extra cleanliness and social distancing measures have been put in place.

Numerous conferences and sporting have been postponed or cancelled entirely and all events within civic facilities have been cancelled until at least May 30.

On March 16, the city activated its Emergency Operations Centre with Davey as EOC director. Soltis says Mayor Hall and city senior staff and close partner groups meet daily and liaise with Northern Health.

Soltis also explained why the city has not enacted a Local State of Emergency.

“During the past week we are aware that some local governments have enacted a state of local emergency which are good for seven days at a time,” said Soltis.

“Currently the provincial state of emergency provides the city of Prince George with the tools it needs to manage COVID-19 related issues. The provincial government has requested local governments not to enact local states of emergency. They want the provinces COVID-19 efforts to be coordinated.”

Following Dr. Henry

As the COVID-19 situation is changing daily, the city continues to follow the recommendations of the province, in particular, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry who is leading the province’s battle against the pandemic.

“I can’t stress too strongly that our direction is taken by Dr. Henry as the provincial medical health officer,” said Mayor Lyn Hall.  

“She has said ‘be kind, be calm and be safe, and remember to check in on our neighbours. This is a community we know full well will step-up.”

Hall also spoke about how important it is to care for the city’s vulnerable citizens and seniors during this time.

“It’s these groups that I would ask our community to pay a lot of attention to. If you have seniors living in your neighbourhood check in on them and find out if they are doing okay. Buy them groceries, help them out — this is what is mean to happen in times like this we look after our neighbours, our families, and our friends.”