Vancouver considers larger tax hit to help fight growing fentanyl crisis

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

The Vancouver Sun

The fentanyl crisis could soon hit the pocketbooks of every homeowner in Vancouver.

City councillors are poised to consider using a 0.5-per-cent, property-tax increase to create a $3.5-million contingency fund intended to combat the growing crisis. That’s in addition to the city’s previously reported 3.4-per-cent, property-tax increase, which will be voted on next week.

While Vision Vancouver councillors and those on the front lines of the fight against fentanyl said the increased funding was muchneeded, Non-Partisan Association councillors attacked it as a calculated distraction from rising taxes.

City staff don’t yet know where the extra money raised by the tax increase will be spent, according to a memo to councillors from Patrice Impey, the city’s general manager of finance, risk and supply-chain management.

“As it is difficult to anticipate the future needs for 2017 as the crisis may continue, increase or moderate, it would be prudent to give flexibility to staff and council in determining opportunities as they arise … ” Impey wrote in the memo.

Listed among the areas that could receive funding are mental-health support for front-line workers (up to $130,000), educational programs for youth ($200,000), additional outreach workers ($65,000 per position), a community policing station ($200,000 a year) and an additional three-person Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services medic unit ($1.8 million for 24/7 coverage).

Also listed was $50,000 for increased street sweeping and flushing, and $250,000 for low-barrier work cleaning up discarded needles. That spending is in addition to $3.8 million in new public cleanliness initiatives already included in the broader budget.

The incoming cash would boost council’s contingency funds from $4 million to $7.5 million.

Non-Partisan Association councillors criticized the last-minute increase, stating that cash could have been found elsewhere in the $1.3-billion budget, noting that it’s not just a municipal issue, and questioning the timing of the news. Coun. George Affleck charged that the new funding — which didn’t appear in the draft 2017 budget released last month — was intended to draw attention away from the city’s rising taxes and fees.

During the first 10 months of 2016, 622 people died from an overdose, and, in about 60 per cent of those cases, fentanyl was detected.

Robert Weeks, president of the Vancouver Firefighters Association, urged council to fund an additional medic unit, noting that call volumes had doubled since last year.

“A third medic unit … will have a direct impact on saving lives,” Weeks said.

Fire hall No. 2 in the Downtown Eastside responded to 1,255 calls in November, more than 700 of which were in response to overdoses, Weeks said. Crews are on pace for 1,600 runs this month.

“That puts us at the busiest fire hall in Canada by a significant amount,” he said.

“This is the new normal. We don’t look at this as a spike anymore. This trend has grown from last year and it looks to only get worse.

“With the low cost, availability, of this drug, we expect these overdoses to continue.”

Without additional resources, firefighters’ training, community outreach and response times will suffer, Weeks said.

Sarah Blyth of the Overdose Prevention Society, which runs an unsanctioned supervised injection site in the DTES, welcomed additional funds to combat the overdose crisis.

She said it’s prudent that more front-line staff are trained to use the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone and respond appropriately to overdoses in general.

“All of the front-line staff are really pushed to their absolute limits,” she said.

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