Brampton looking at options for recovery after COVID-19 subsides
Projections from health experts in Ontario have inspired a new working group in Brampton.
Led by Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros (Wards 3 and 4), it will work on a plan for the eventual return to normal life in the city, when it's safe to do so. The group was announced two days after new modelling by the provincial government showed cases of COVID-19 are beginning to peak in Ontario earlier than expected. Government officials including public health authorities are stressing that we are not out of the woods yet and that’s it’s crucial people continue to practice social distancing and isolation, otherwise we will see the viral spread increase again.
Regional Councillor Martin Medeiros will lead a City Hall group that will plan for the eventual reopening of facilities and services
Decisions by Brampton’s working group will be made based on direction from the Region, provincial and federal government, public health officials at all three levels along with collaboration from the various task forces set up by the City.
These groups have been set up to connect residents who need help accessing a range of services and assistance to help cope with the ongoing crisis. “It’s very clear right now that everything that we do will be to ensure public safety, and that residents of Brampton … are protected,” Medeiros said.
Along with the province’s new projections, health officials warned about the possibility of a second wave and a possible increase of infections among certain parts of the population that don’t heed the directives, after things seem to be approving.
Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, warned a second wave could hit residents. "We know that we will experience another COVID-19 wave because we have yet to reach a high level of immunity in our community.”
Details around how Brampton’s working group will meet and conduct business, and what specifically it will do, remain unclear. It’s also not known how often the group will provide public updates.
City facilities such as offices, libraries, public spaces such as parks and a range of recreation centres and community hubs will all have to be prepared for reopening, likely with stepped-up protocols for cleaning and other precautions to mitigate the possible spread of the virus.
Brampton's Springdale Library is one of many facilities that might feature new public health protocols once it's reopened
The group is also responsible for exploring funding opportunities higher levels of governments can provide to help ease the financial impact of COVID-19. According to a staff report titled COVID-19 Financial Status Update, funding is badly needed.
The report highlights three financial scenarios: if social distancing measures are able to end by July 1, the city will face a $44.7 million deficit. If the date is extended to October 1, the deficit will be $51.1 million. That number will increase to $54.7 million if physical distancing measures remain in place for the rest of the year.
These numbers are provided as an estimate of what the impact might look like, as the actual financial losses could be much higher. This is a reality stated in the report itself, with the COVID-19 pandemic being illustrated as a crisis the city has never faced before. “The developing situation is dynamic and the duration and magnitude of the impact to the economy and the financial effect on city financials cannot be fully determined at this time.”
The report was prepared by the city’s finance division, Jason Tamming, Brampton’s Director of Strategic Communications, told The Pointer. Information for the report was gathered from senior management leading divisions in the city, who are independently determining the impact COVID-19 is having on projects and services that fall under their jurisdiction.
Last month, the City of Brampton announced it will waive interest fees and penalties for late payments on property taxes. This initiative started on March 18 and will end August 19. Under the July 1 scenario presented in the report, this act by the city will cost it $6.4 million in lost revenue. The impact of this has not yet been felt by the city, as people followed through on payments in March, city staff said at the Wednesday city council meeting.
But the story will be different in a week as April 22 would have been the last day property taxes were accepted before penalties were added, under the pre-pandemic rules. “Over the course of the next week, we’re going to have a much better sense of those who decided to take advantage of the referral,” a member of staff said.
During the weekly press conference on Wednesday, Mayor Patrick Brown did not seem particularly worried about the financial situation in the face of the ongoing closures. While he acknowledged the report gives best estimates based on current situations, he said he’s been having promising conversations with higher levels of government.
A discussion with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was encouraging, Brown said, with talk of providing help to Canada's big cities. Discussions with Premier Doug Ford and Rod Phillips, Ontario’s Minister of Finance, led to the city being told to keep track of losses related to COVID-19. “They understand municipalities can’t run deficits and so I would say I’m concerned right now. But we have a reason for optimism that there's going to be some help coming to municipalities,” Brown said, responding to The Pointer during the press conference.
While the report states funds from the General Rate Stabilization (GRS) reserve will be able to cover the shortfall portrayed in all three scenarios (as of March 31, $71.8 million sat in the GRS reserve), Brown hopes this money won’t be used. “I hope we don’t have to use any reserves. I am cautiously optimistic that the provincial and federal offer to help with shortfalls is genuine,” he told The Pointer via email after the press conference.
It’s not clear when either government will make a decision on funding for municipalities, but any deal could come with a hefty price tag. Toronto alone is projecting a $1.5 billion to $2.7 billion loss using roughly the same three scenarios Brampton seems to have borrowed from other cities that released their financial predictions earlier.
The City also has no plans to cut basic services at this time, Brown said, when asked by The Pointer if there could be some further reductions to things such as street cleaning, grass cutting, park maintenance or even programming at recreational centres and for seniors once the mandated closures end.
One of the ways the City has come across savings, however, is through the closure of its facilities under emergency orders and the temporary lay-off of employees. Labour savings for the city will come to almost $11 million under the July 1 scenario and $24.4 million if the closures last till the end of the year. The city temporarily laid-off 2,000 part-time, temporary and casual employees during the spread of the novel coronavirus.
City spokesperson Natalie Stogdill told The Pointer impacted individuals remain city employees. Any accumulated vacation days and lieu time banked will be paid out to employees, she said. This is along with providing third-party consultation to help employees facing challenges with anything from finances to health issues apply for any potential benefits that may be available to them.
The city also provided all impacted employees with details for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). If those employees don't qualify for CERB, they can apply for employment insurance, Stogdill said. At this time, these are the only options for support offered to impacted employees, as the City will not be offering its own assistance.
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