While the Municipality of North Cowichan is shutting down its municipal hall and most of its regular services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, essential services will be maintained through the crisis.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, Mayor Al Siebring said North Cowichan’s workers will continue to monitor the municipality’s water and sewer systems to ensure public health.
Fire, RCMP and curb-side garbage collection services will also continue through the crisis.
Siebring said if North Cowichan ends up in a situation where, due to illness among employees, it is short staffed in essential areas, the municipality has mutual-aid agreements with other local governments and regional districts from Nanaimo to Victoria to fill the gaps.
“We are in what can only be described as a surreal situation,” Siebring said at the council meeting, with only Coun. Tek Manhas in attendance while other councillors participated by teleconference.
What few staff there were at the meeting were also spaced apart.
Siebring quoted Michael Leavitt, a former American Secretary of Health and Human Services, to describe the situation.
“Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist, everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate,” Siebring said.
“So please understand that the decisions we’ve been making, and are continuing to make, are being done in a context where we don’t want to be alarmist, but at the same time, we don’t want our response to be ‘inadequate’.”
Siebring said council meetings and public hearings have been cancelled, all public engagement processes have been postponed for the next 90 days, and recreation centres have been closed.
“In this unprecedented, challenging time, people can email firstname.lastname@example.org, check the municipality’s website or call the switchboard at 250-746-3100 to find out how staff can support you,” he said.
“As this situation continues to evolve, we will remain focused on the provision of critical services, but to protect staff and the public, things may change rapidly. This is a very fluid situation.”
Siebring said the crisis is having, and will continue to have, huge economic impacts on the municipality and taxpayers, including people’s ability to pay their property taxes due to work interruptions.
Siebring said the process to set the tax rates for 2020 in North Cowichan was well advanced, but he has asked staff to consider all options to ease the burden on residents during this “unprecedented time”, and put a pause on finalizing the 2020 tax rates until that report is completed.
“We have a statutory deadline to have our budget ready by May 15, and part of the problem is that the staff who will be writing the report are the same people who are handling crisis management,” he said.
“So I asked Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson if the May 15th deadline could be extended to give us, and other municipalities, more time to assess these issues. I also asked the minister about the possibility of extending the deadline for property tax payments, which is mandated by the province.”
Siebring said normally, property taxes are due and payable by July 2, but in recognition of the fact that many people may be facing serious cash-flow problems due to unemployment or other factors related to this crisis, he asked the minister to look at moving that deadline to later in the summer or early fall.
He said he also asked Robinson if the province would consider bridge funding in the form of loans to municipalities so they can keep operations running during an extended tax deadline period.
As for panic buying in grocery stores, Siebring said he was talking to some store managers in North Cowichan and they are asking that the public to “calm down”.
“The key message they wanted me to relay is that there are no problems with their normal supply lines,” he said.
“The only reason we’re seeing some empty shelves in the stores is because of panic buying, but if we’d all just stop doing that, the supply lines are absolutely fine to keep us well stocked with the basics. You should know that if you are ‘stockpiling’, you are taking away food from people who, for a variety of reasons, are living on a budget that requires them to shop more frequently.”
Siebring thanked the community for stepping up for each other during the crisis.
“The offers to shop for one another, particularly for vulnerable seniors, shut-ins, and those who are self isolating after returning from trips, are a great example of how we can all continue to work together as a community,” he said.