On Thursday evening this week, as we near the midpoint of the City Council term, councillors and the mayor will gather with City staff and an outside facilitator (on Zoom) to discuss where to go from here in what may feel like a brave new world vis-a-vis the pandemic. Rightly dubbed “council strategic priorities refresh,” my colleagues and I will contend with and for the future of our beautiful municipality facing a very different world than when we first set direction in Spring of 2019. Or do we? You might say COVID-19 has disrupted lives and livelihoods in a way unthinkable to almost everyone living in our materially-comfortable and materialistic Western bubble since the end of the second World War. I’d ask, has it?
The more I think about how I would answer my own questions — and while I digest the report from City staff and feedback from the public that has been presented to council — the more I am aware that these “unprecedented times” have only served to expose difficulties that already existed before the pathogen ripped through our communities and the world.
That line of thought is not to downplay the tremendous challenges faced by many because of the virus, nor minimize the hard work to contain it and loss caused by it the world over. Yet, the idea that the pandemic is a microscope or mirror of our problems is not a new idea. And it’s definitely not original to me. Indeed, commentators have opined on it for a number of months, and our communal lexicon around the disease has evolved to reflect it. From “an abundance of caution” — terminology first used to justify what are undeniably drastic, though necessary, government interventions in the economy and across sectors in early days of COVID; to “we’re all in this together” — a phrase which served to genuinely comfort and remind us of our true and intrinsic interconnection as the novel coronavirus spread rapidly and we were forced to take a collective pandemic pause; to, now, “Build Back Better” — sloganeering I’ve heard recently from the prime minister, and the motto adopted by Vice President Joe Biden in his valiant quest to unseat Donald Trump.
The new language acknowledges what I feel we must recognize as we go into the strategic planning session, and something I hope all of Kingston will consider: While many may not have seen them so clearly before this year, there have been systemic inequities and questions of sustainability knocking at our door for generations. From affordable housing to climate change; a precarious global economy; an evolving, even uncertain, local market; dangerous streets; and disparities in health, wealth, and education across socio-economic-racial-gendered demographics. The problems didn’t start with the pandemic and they certainly didn’t go away, either.
In fact, we still are addicted to fossil fuels for heating and cooling and transportation, and plastics for just about every facet of life; communities are designed for cars, not people; many languish under unaffordable rents and are shut out of home ownership by astronomical growth in housing prices; vulnerable populations struggle to pay for the basics like food and shelter, especially those with no income or those seeking out existence on fixed incomes that are devastatingly low; area businesses need our dollars as they compete against multinational giants exploiting cheap labour and next to no environmental standards overseas; and women, LGBTQ2S+, and Indigenous neighbours face disproportionate levels of discrimination.
So what are we to do? My argument is that we should stay the course, double down on what we, as council, already committed to do in addressing these things. In fact, I’d say that by setting the following priorities in 2019, council was ahead of the curve. At a high level, in no particular order because they are all related:
- Demonstrate leadership on climate action
- Increase housing affordability
- Improve walkability, transit and roads
- Strengthen economic development opportunities
- Foster healthy citizens and vibrant spaces
This ambitious framework comes with a commitment to keep regressive property taxes as low as possible. This should continue, too. (Remember, you could earn literally 10X less than what your neighbour does and you’d still be taxed about the same if your houses were of roughly the same value — that’s not right! People should pay property tax progressively and proportionately to their income, like they do for all other levels of government.)
Yes, things will be difficult in light of decreased revenues from key sources like transit fares. And, yes, we must get creative and be flexible, bringing together new non-tax revenue streams that blend social, economic, environmental, and democratic wellbeing, and deferring certain projects (as recommended by the staff report). But council’s goals for our community — which speak to the problems we face and the opportunities we have — and which, from my reading of the feedback submitted, is by and large supported by residents — should not change, nor should the burden on the taxpayer to get there.
Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.