By Jensen, Randy on April 30, 2020.
The Lethbridge Economic Recovery Task Force asked that city council get creative and pass speedy economic measures which could help local businesses weather the COVID-19 economic storm which has gripped the city this past month.
Any program, grant or tax break which could put money back into local business owners pockets would be helpful, said Task Force co-chairs Cyndi Vos and Trevor Lewington at Monday’s Community Issues Committee meeting.
“What emerged from our (COVID-19 local business) survey, and it matches the provincial data, is getting money back into the hands of business owners to support their businesses will be key,” stated Lewington. “In our survey, we asked the question around which programs are more or less helpful? A lot of the deferrals, and the ability for business owners to keep money in their accounts, rated much higher than things like job-sharing or some other considerations.”
The Task Force submitted several ideas for council’s consideration leading into its May 11 special meeting where local business support and other COVID-19 related measures will be discussed.
Proposals included tax deferrals, tax breaks, the suspension of some City-collected fees, and potentially grants for short term rent support.
“There is the commercial rent program the federal government is doing, but there are lots of restrictions,” Lewington later told The Herald. “What if building owners in the city could apply for a grant of a few thousand dollars where they could pass on to their tenants? Or maybe commercial tenants themselves could apply for an emergency grant that could just help them get through which isn’t available through one of the other programs. That is something that would put money directly into a business owner’s hand, and allow them to keep going for another month or two.”
Mayor Chris Spearman said last week without a provincial government backstop for measures like property tax deferrals anything done would have to be born on the back of local taxpayers. It was a thought re-iterated by Coun. Joe Mauro during Monday’s CIC meeting.
Lewington said local business owners were aware of longer term consequences if the City shorts itself on revenue to help supplement the survival of local businesses, and knew they would eventually be asked to pay for it through increased taxation, or fees, or the loss of services and other community programs in the coming years.
“Ultimately the taxpayer foots the bill,” conceded Lewington. “But I think the business owners I have talked to recognize they are the ones who are going to be paying for this down the road. But, they feel, this support now is an investment so they are here in the future to make those payments. If we don’t act now, and allow too many businesses to fail, then paying it back in the future is going to be even harder. There is going to be far fewer left to pay it back.”
Lewington, who also serves as Mayor of Stirling in his private life, suggested not all revenue to support local businesses has to come strictly from tax breaks. And that with public health orders in effect most communities, like his, would have extra revenue on hand.
“There should be money that could be redirected to other things,” Lewington said. “You have to look at the probability of things like pools being able to re-open. There are public health orders in place, and Dr. Hinshaw herself has said large gatherings beyond 15 people won’t be allowed probably for the whole summer until September. So if you are not allowed to have any major events, and you are not allowed to have a pool open, or an arena, or a recreation facility. Then clearly those costs are going to go down.
“The City has to make those trade-offs,” he added. “Are there funds that can be repurposed? So can we for a (recreation) grant say, ‘We’ll scrub it, and use it for something else?’ Or is it a conscious choice where we say, ‘We’re not going to fund this because we need to move the money over here?’ There are some things that belong to the municipal government, and city council is going to have to figure out what levers they are willing to use to support the business community.”
Lewington said creativity was key in using those local levers to maximize the benefit to as many local businesses as possible.
“It is more important to act and get something out there,” he said, “and then adjust and course correct as needed along the way.”
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