By Lethbridge Herald on May 12, 2020.
The annual levy to support the Downtown Lethbridge Business Revitalization Zone has been cancelled for 2020, but not without some strenuous objections of one councillor.
According to the City, the BRZ Levy taken from downtown businesses on top of their existing property and business taxes is worth about $219,000 this year. About $198,000 of that is earmarked toward the BRZ budget. The levy has been applied every year since 1988, and this is the first time downtown businesses have asked for a cancellation of this sort in the face of an unprecedented crisis due to COVID-19, a crisis the motion’s sponsor Coun. Mark Campbell said was akin to an “uppercut from Mike Tyson” on the jaw of downtown businesses.
The $219,000 will instead be taken on a one-time basis from the Heart of Our City Committee’s internal funding to make up the shortfall, and to ensure the BRZ continues to operate to help create strategies so surviving businesses can emerge on a good foot after this crisis.
“Our businesses have been closed, many of them,” said BRZ chair Hunter Heggie. “We have had a couple of bad years with the drug crisis and our city has really taken a hit downtown. We feel like we just started to crawl out of this, and we get another punch here. (Our businesses) are still paying their taxes, they are just being relieved of this extra levy paid to the BRZ.”
Heggie said the COVID crisis has already caused catastrophic economic damage to some downtown business owners.
“It’s a sad situation,” he said. “We have members, even on our board, who have had to close their businesses permanently. It’s humbling, and it’s staggering the impact this (COVID crisis) has had on businesses.”
Coun. Joe Mauro said he was sympathetic to all the “mom and pop” business owners in downtown Lethbridge who were struggling during the current pandemic, but did not like that the levy would also be forgiven this year to successful national chain stores and hotels in the downtown.
“I can’t swallow this,” said Mauro. “First of all, it’s not only you guys that are coming here. It’s everybody. It’s every Tom, Dick and Harry that is coming to the City and expects us to be the bank for whatever. But COVID now seems to be an excuse for everybody to come to this City. I might have to put a resolution in that instead of it being called city hall, we call it Bank of City Hall. Because, at the end of the day, wherever the money comes from, it comes from my pocket: the taxpayer’s pocket.
“Now what we are being asked to do,” he continued, “on behalf of the taxpayer, is I am going to take money that we as council designate as tax dollars to Heart of Our City. Now you want me to take that $219,000 from taxpayers and give it to the businesses downtown. I would definitely give it to you, but I have a problem. All of Park Place Mall pretty much is a national chain. All the big banks. All the law firms, the accounting firms, all of them–my tax dollar is going to help them.”
Heggie responded to Mauro that every business in downtown Lethbridge has been hurt by the crisis, even the national chains. You can’t forgive the BRZ levy for some and not all, he stated.
“I am here as the BRZ chair of all the businesses downtown, not just the little guys but the big guys as well,” he explained. “We’re all in this together … You can’t just have one small group being separated and one group not paying and one group paying.
“A lot of these companies, the big banks, the stores in the mall, they pay into this levy every year, and happily,” Heggie added. “They are happy with the work we are doing, and so it would be a kick to them to have to have them pay it again. We have all been hurt here. It’s not just the little guys. It’s the big guys as well.”
In the end council voted 8-1 in favour of cancelling the BRZ levy for this year, and having the funds made up from the internal operating funds of the Heart of Our City Committee.
Heggie thanked council, and appealed to Lethbridge residents to support their local businesses as the economy re-opens over the next few weeks and months.
“Your local businesses are the ones who drive our economy, and so a lot of them have really been hurt by this, and some have sadly been permanently closed,” he said. “I would stress to people, and eagerly ask them to come support their local businesses.”
Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter