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What does public art and garbage have to do with Vancouver’s new fentanyl tax?

December 14, 2016
Abandoned safe injection kits seen at Main Street and Terminal Avenue.

Abandoned safe injection kits seen at Main Street and Terminal Avenue.

A media-dubbed “fentanyl tax” of 0.5 percent is included in Vancouver City Council’s 3.9 percent increase in property taxes, approved on Tuesday, December 14.

According to media reports the half-a-percent increase will add $3.5 million to the city’s contingency fund, increasing it from $4 million to $7.5 million.

According to a CKNW report, the $3.5 million will be used to fund:

  • More staff support for overdose management at shelters.
  • Additional shelter spaces.
  • A three-person medic crew at the Downtown Eastside Fire Hall.
  • Public sanitation and cleanliness due to the increase in needles and abandoned garbage.

There’s no surprise that the city is looking to increase funding to Vancouver Fire and Rescue in the Downtown Eastside, after all, firefighters reportedly responded to an astounding 1,255 overdose incidents in the DTES—in November alone!

But it is a surprise that not all of the tax revenue is going to overdose prevention and that any of it will go to non-addiction-related things like shelter beds and garbage collection.

I could understand if some or all of the $3.5 million tax increase was being earmarked to fund addiction-related Four Pillars drug strategy activities, like the harm reduction of safe injection sites, prevention programs, more drug treatment beds and law enforcement efforts to get fentanyl off the streets.

But the fact that the city appears to bu using the excuse of the overdose crisis to grab some funding for unrelated things like shelter spaces and garbage collection stinks, as far as I’m concerned.

Equally dodgy is the fact that the monies—which are needed now (as if they weren’t needed last year and the year before that)—will only become available some time next year and, in the words of NPA councilor George Affleck, as quoted by the Province, they will be in the form of a “nebulous sort of fund that will be…embedded as part of our operating budget forever”.

Too little too late or better late than never?

This fentanyl tax is hardly an example of proactive leadership and appears to be a tardy attempt to catch up with (if not exploit) an emergency that has been underway for well over three years now.

There has been an obvious crisis of fentanyl-related overdoses in Vancouver since at least 2014, when the all-too-powerful opioid narcotic was deemed by the B.C. Coroners’ Service to be a contributing factor in a quarter of B.C.’s 367 illicit drug overdose deaths; that’s something like 90 deaths—22 of which occurred in Vancouver. In 2015, there were 32 fentanyl-related deaths in the city and a further 59 deaths this year, as of September 30.

Municipalities, such Vancouver, have limited sources of revenue compared to any senior level of government and arguably need to be much more fiscally responsible than their provincial and federal counterparts, which have the opportunity to tax millions of citizens, rather than just thousands.

Yet, through this period of the last three or four years, when Vancouver drug users were dying in record numbers, the city did visible little to realign and refocus its limited spending powers to get ahead of the crisis.

The city has continued to spend unspecified hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct pointless annual Point-in-Time homeless counts (which have arguably done nothing to reduce homelessness).

And as much as the city has spent since 2013 on its Homeless Action Week and as little as this annual event has done to improve the situation of homeless people, I am unaware that it has done anything to address the fentanyl overdose crisis, which is having some small effect on the city’s homeless population.

And this summer, while Vancouver drug users continued paying with their lives for illicit drugs adulterated with fentanyl, the City of Vancouver was reportedly paying at least $200,000 to paint murals on buildings in East Vancouver—many of which (I am certain) will be knocked down for redevelopment in the next 5 to 10 years.

Vancouver fiddles away money on public art while the DTES burns!


Mayor Robertson has been the biggest patron of public art in Vancouver’s history.

I admit that it irked me that any city tax dollars were spent on the 2016 Vancouver Mural Festival, which saw some 35 building along the Main Street corridor decorated with murals, including the former city building at 5 E 8th Avenue, which is now occupied by the tech startup Hootsuite.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that public art is important, both as an investment in creating quality public spaces and as a medium of communication between generations. I just don’t think that outdoor murals painted on old buildings can ever last long enough to give good value for a city’s finite public art dollars.


The Faces if Vancouver mural, defaced on October 2014 to make way for a patio.

I’m reminded of the Faces of Vancouver mural that Cambie Village residents paid for between 2005 and 2007, to raise funds for Covenant House.

It was a good mural and a good cause but it only lasted 8 years, until August of 2014, when a coffee chain location took over the building and tore the mural out to make way for an outdoor patio.

I also agree with critics who saw the Vancouver Mural Festival as a push in the direction of so-called tech gentrification, designed to make the area of workaday light industrial low-rises that much more attractive to technology startups and the creative types that they employ.

However, companies like Hootsuite hardly need (or deserve) financial help to paint murals on their buildings and I think that the city had more vital things to spend the $200,000 on—what with there being an ongoing public health crisis and all.

Less housing, more homelessness and most of all public art


The L’Ecole Bilingue School public art mural seen in August of 2016, during construction of the new school.

It turns out however, that public art of all sorts, from short-lived murals to even shorter-lived Flash-bashed multimedia presentations, like “Surface“, is a top priority to Mayor Gregor Robertson.

More public art has been installed in the city during Robertson’s tenure, beginning in 2009 and continuing to present—both in total and per year—than during any previous civic administration in Vancouver’s history.

According to the City of Vancouver’s online Public Art Registry, 217 pieces of public art have been installed during the nearly eight years of the Robertson administration. This number is more than 6 times the average and nearly 38 percent higher than the next-most public art-minded administration of Phillip Owen, which added 136 pieces of public art between 1992 and 2002.

I have no more idea how much Mayor Robertson’s unprecedented love of public art has cost taxpayers than I  had that there were 15 pieces of public art in the Fairview neighbourhood (a lot of it is hiding in the False Creek/Granville island area).


One of the disarmingly vivid bronze statues which adorn the Vancouver School Board property.

One listed piece of public art that few Fairview residents see is the mural “Peopling the Playground” by Sally Gregson, which is painted on the inside schoolyard wall of the L’Ecole Bilingue Elementary School at 1166 W. 14th Avenue. Since the mural was painted, the original school has been knocked down and a brand new school has been put up in its place.

Curiously the City doesn’t list one of the most enduring and visible pieces of public art in the Fairview neighbourhood. I’m referring to the bronze sculptures of children at play, which adorn the grounds and walkways of the Vancouver School Board property at 1580 West Broadway Avenue.

What has garbage collection got to do with drug overdoses?

One of the rust-bucket garbage trucks tasked with collecting abandoned garbage, like matresses and...matresses.

One of the old rust-bucket garbage trucks now tasked with collecting abandoned garbage, like mattresses.

It’s interesting that part of the rationale for the fentanyl tax is to fund the collection of abandoned garbage, coming as it does two months after the city abandoned recycling collection to Multi-Materials B.C.

It will be remembered that at the time of the changeover, on October 3, the city announced both that it would stop charging home owners for the recycling collection that it was no longer doing and that most of the sanitation workers made redundant by the change would be shifted over to collecting the abandoned garbage overflowing the alleys and streets, at an extra cost of $2 million-a-year.

The city didn’t say where the $2 million was coming from and I can’t help but wonder if some of it will be filched out of this new half percent tax, ostensibly advertised as being for the prevention of overdose deaths but, well, who can really say?

I note that when the city had to stop collecting the recycling charge it may have forfeited an amount in the neighbourhood of $4,517,100 to 5,420,520, based on multiplying the estimated $13-18 per single family household by the 2011 census figure of 301,140 single detached homes in Vancouver.

Probably though, the entire proceeds of the recycling charge—and then some—were eaten up by the cost of collecting the recycling and maintaining the city’s antiquated fleet of Labrie Top Select recycler trucks. Quite likely the city ended up saving money by getting out of recycling collection.

But by shifting former recycling collection crews to cleaning up abandoned garbage, the city preserved existing salary costs and it looks like the abandoned garbage is being collected by a fleet of rusty old garbage trucks that are probably every bit as decrepit and maintenance-hungry as the Labrie Top Select trucks.

Then there’s the mystery of who is paying the landfill recycling fees on the recyclable oversized abandoned garbage, such as mattresses and TVs, that the City of Vancouver is now apparently committing itself to collect, free of any charge to residents.

It is in large part because of the recycling fees (such as $15 per mattress or boxspring) that the region introduced in 2011—and that residents have to pay if they want to take such garbage to the landfill—that has led to the practice of just abandoning such garbage in the back alleys.

Does Metro Vancouver waive the recycling fees when it’s a municipality like Vancouver bringing the mattresses to the landfill? I doubt it.

This fentanyl tax does not look like fiscal responsibility. It looks more like a tax grab.

If the city really needs this money to fight overdoses then it should be locked in for that specific purpose, otherwise it just looks like an opportunistic tax grab by a lazy, cynical civic administration that has learned that it can commit to any spending that it likes and then, when the bills are coming due, say whatever it needs to say in order to get the money that it needs from taxpayers.

I hate to say it but it looks like Vancouver is learning bad habits from the regional transit authority.

Speaking of abandoned over-sized garbage

One of the lonely Labrie Top Select recycler trucks languishing in the Manitoba Works Yard.

A lonely Labrie Top Select recycler languishes in the Manitoba Works Yard.

By the way, since Vancouver got out of recycling collection on October 3, the city’s entire fleet of 29 Labrie Top Select recycler trucks have been sitting idle and quietly rusting in the Manitoba Works Yard.

Most (if not all) of these trucks are 27-years-old—dating back to the inception of Vancouver’s curbside blue box recycling program in 1989.

According to an email reply from Mike Zupan, Vancouver Engineering Services Manager in charge of Sanitation Services, the urgent need to replace this fleet, against the prohibitive cost of doing so, was one of the reasons why the city chose to exit recycling collection altogether.

Mr. Zupan says that the city occasionally posts such decommissioned equipment on Craigslist but usually sells it via B.C. Auction.

There was no hint given how much nearly 30-year-old, dull white second hand garbage trucks go for on the open market.

I’m thinking that perhaps they’d be more attractive to potential buyers if they were, you know, dressed up a bit. Perhaps the city could bring in some good graffiti artists. Edgy custom murals might be just the thing to add value and help them fetch a higher price.

Goodness knows, the city could probably find something to do with the extra money. Click the images to enlarge them.

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