Week 4.5 Thoughts: What Can a Municipality Do?

Being at home has gotten me thinking, what can be done locally to help jump start the economy. Based on what has begun to emerge in London and rumblings from other communities (yes other communities have strategies in the works). The feeling that has really gripped me, is that those of us who get paid to go to meetings (myself included) have largely kept doing what we have been doing via video conference and calling it COVID response, yet fire is burning all around us.

Why 'This Is Fine' Is the Meme This Year Deserves - The New York Times

I have friends who own a small business in #YQG who are now sending their son to live at his grandparents so she and her husband can go back to work without risking infecting him or the broader family. Other friends who work for national companies who have taken 60% pay cuts just to keep their job. I have family who work in health care on the “front line” and are at risk every day. Yet I sit at a computer with Izzy on a pillow behind me and go about my business.

Yes mobilization of resources and volunteers has begun to occur but there is no unifying strategy behind it. It is purely reactionary and in many ways putting band aids on structural challenges that our region faces and have been talked about on this blog numerous times (here and here). Duplication has emerged as good thinking citizens, groups, businesses and agencies all try to do the right thing. Given that the IMF is predicting the worst economic downturn since the great depression, we are in for the long haul – although I think Windsor-Essex’s automotive focus economy might rebound more quickly than some more balanced economies.

WEEDC is leading an economic task force – meeting notes can be found here– coordinating key steps to support business and the local economy. What I takeaway is that they are somewhat hamstrung by not having resources. They can talk about great ideas and the growing need of businesses but they don’t have the ability to implement meaningful initiatives without money from outside the region falling into our laps.

Lets be honest, our local governments can step up and do more. Although I cite Windsor centric ideas in the lists below many of these actions can be taken on by any municipality.

  1. Take on debt! OMG I practically cursed. Lets be honest, the municipalities are probably going to face some cash flow and budgetary challenges due to COVID-19. Differed tax payments, likely higher default rates, closing retail could see building owners taking advantages of tax deferrals etc. Fundamentally the city should seek to maintain pre-COVID level of service.
    • Interest rates are at historic lows, now is the time to take a loan or launch a bond that can be leveraged to restart the local economy. Simply put, putting cash into the community is the fastest way to mitigate long term economic impacts of the shutdown. By taking on a reasonable amount of debt, it would insulate residents from massive tax hikes or major cuts next year while the economy is still recovering and enable prudent and rapid investment in key projects and human capital when needed. Putting extra capital projects in play through debt are a way to expedited planned projects and stimulate local economic activity.
  2. Waive all the fees.… Whether construction fees, permitting fees, street closures etc.
    • Dozens of businesses are unfortunately going to close, new operators will likely need to come in and remodel- this will require permits, and municipalities need to remove that barrier.
    • The construction industry has carried on through this crisis mostly unimpeded, if we can get a few more projects moving, do it. Waive development charges and other fees for the short term could get shovels in the ground this summer.
    • If people are able to come together, waive festival and street closure fee to supports farmers markets and events where businesses and artists can preform and earn revenue.
    • Charities, NFP and community groups are going to be hurting after this period, even free room and gym rental for community groups in municipal facilities will help accelerate recovery and return to normalcy.
    • Rather than handling a weekly sets of delegates at council all asking for the same thing, just waive fees until the end of the year.
  3. Activate the BIAs… Give them resources to support their existing businesses and get mainstreet restarted. Redirect the “districting funds – over $4M between now and 2023” that were approved in this years budget to BIAs. We can pull this money forward so the BIAs can support their members through rent subsidies, grants and other local business activities. We don’t need Asian Town signage if there are no businesses there. A pot of money for small businesses in retail and restaurant services would go a long way.
  4. Social Procurement – The City should bring together major institutions and support its local businesses through social procurement policies. Put simply change proposition when looking at a tender or RFP result, not every tender should be judged by the cheapest bid. Giving a local business whether a printer, office company, IT support, catering the list goes on and on you not only get a local product but your supporting the local economy. Yes it might be. For those who say that is illegal due to trade agreement, you are right there are rules and thresholds that can be met, so why not meet them? If the City and major institutions joined together on some combined purchasing where possible (and not already occurring) economies of scale could drive down prices. Peterborough is enacting a policy, why not here.
  5. We are in for a 12-18 months + trek to normalcy, as a result more outdoor spaces maybe needed. The City of Windsor has a parks master plan and active transit plan that could see elements accelerated. Reactivation of “closed parks” as usable and accessible green spaces, targeted bike lane installation using temporary measures to connect key parts of the community, tree planting and other greening of existing spaces or closing sections of streets to traffic for pedestrian usage.
  6. Top up public health funding – Health Units are generally funded 70/30 – province to municipality although that ratio may shifting under previously announced changes by the Ford Government. If there is a time to invest in this authority at a local level in a sustained way, it is now.
  7. Invest in Human Capital of the Community – City of Ottawa has set aside $15M for affordable housing construction in each of the last 2 years, Town of Strathroy is paying for a training program to encourage young people to get in to the trades. NFP and Charities are going to be hard pressed to support people moving forward. P2P has only had modest funding expansions in the last 5 years, now might be time for the City to do more for our community’s most vulnerable.
  8. Expanding Municipal Wifi and internet access – Given the high child poverty rates (yes they are still high) we know that kids need to be able to access the internet. The Internet in the 21st Century is a utility no different than water or electricity; a basic and essential service that should be available for all. We like to call ourselves a “Smart City” but kids in core neighbourhoods can’t do their school work as they don’t have access to the internet. Why not blanket key parks and apartment building communities with wifi (like Austin Texas) or work with a local internet provider (like MSNI) to put internet into every home in the City through a public-private partnership.
  9. Fund Workforce WindsorEssex – COVID-19 is going to transform our local economy in ways we can’t really consider. WFWE they are the ones who do that research. The province just cut the LEPC which WFWE was the lead, so maybe the region should step up and keep this vital research and data collection going.
  10. Hire back your employees because you can’t tell me that a summer student lottery is going to happen this year so what work could existing staff do for the community? Yes an employee who is part-time sitting at a desk at a community centre isn’t essential but they can still add value to the community in a time of crisis. 20 hours per week at a desk or 20 hours cleaning parks, painting a walls, deep cleaning facilities, or supporting community agencies. There is no reason why community agencies should be scrambling to find volunteers when the city is laying off staff.

Above are 10 things that the municipalities can do to help reboot our local economy and strengthen our community post-COVID-19. This isn’t a normal recession, a normal response probably won’t cut it. Now is the time for innovative thinking, different approaches and trying new things.

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