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As Vancouver city budget is debated and approved tonight, a look at some of the stories behind the numbers

December 4th, 2012 · 23 Comments

After years of being criticized for producing somewhat skimpy budget numbers, the city’s finance department came up with a veritable bible about city activities and spending. My story and the report.

As I’ve said elsewhere, a vast improvement but it would still be nice to see in easy-to-understand numbers how much the city is spending in total (with breakdowns) on the issues it says are its main priorities: affordable housing, homelessness, green initiatives. We are shifting spending into these areas, but without a clear idea of how much of city resources is being dedicated to these ambitious efforts. Perhaps next year.

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  • Marshall

    Very interested to get the #’s on social housing, which really is this councils agenda @ the expense of all else.

  • Michael Kluckner

    Your Globe story notes that historic photos are divided between the archives on Kits Point and the VPL main branch and people need to trek between them. I think people are trekking between the two websites, especially since the archives put high-resolution images onto its website which are free for the downloading.

    In her rush to ‘efficiency,’ Penny Ballem would likely spend a fortune trying to put those two agencies together. The archives building (with the first-ever green roof in Vancouver, built in 1971) has freezers and other state-of-the-art archival storage features that simply couldn’t move to the upper floors of the VPL. The VPL has its collection of microfilmed newspapers from all over the province in a well-arranged room on the 6th floor: no way there’s room for them in the archives building while still allowing the public easy access. The VPL has a provincial collection; the archives is the city repository. There’s some overlap between the collections but no wasted space in either site.

    I can imagine Penny Ballem in charge of Paris: “what’s this Louvre place and why do we have to have the Musee d’Orsay too?”

    And, Frances, is the archives “a small concrete bunker?” Its reading room is one of the great public spaces in Vancouver. People should visit, if only to trace their family’s history or figure out how old their house is.

  • Frances, for future coverage, please do investigate and report on the City of Vancouver’s secrecy about procurement contracts. Also, apparently, the budget was not to be decided on December 4th. People had good reason to come to the same conclusion as you did in your heading — that the decision would be the same night — as none of the day’s meeting documents stated otherwise. But Clr Raymond Louie wrote us separately to clarify: “Council will not be approving the 2013 Operating and Capital budget tonight. The approval will happen a another week from now on December 11 as Unfinished Business at the regular council meeting that day.”

  • Julia

    I would much prefer the cost to amalgamate the 2 facilities be put into fixing the archive section of the new city website so I can understand the search function and actually see the thumbnails.

  • Silly Season

    There are a few parallels between this thread and the proposed—and controversial changes—at the famous and beautiful and historic NYC public library (hello, Batman!).

    A drive for cost savings in these parsimonious times, tinkering with heritage, combining collections…seems we have some of the same big city blues…

  • Glissando Remmy

    Michael Kluckner #2

    “There’s some overlap between the collections but no wasted space in either site.”
    Ballem is only one of the many ‘useful idiots’ that are shuffling papers inside Vancouver’s City Hall.
    Tragic but true.
    You’ll never hear her say:
    “Why do they pay me this much for what I do? No, but seriously, what do I do!?”
    As for Frances, downplaying the role of the archives… only tr trying to make Penny’s Silly Putty stick to Vision’s Wall of Efficiencies…


  • MB

    @ Michael Kluckner, thank you for the information on the archives.

    One of the most enjoyable experiences a reseacher can have is to spend a few days pawing over historic photos and documents at the archives. The data is invaluable. And it’s a quiet, productive way to spend your time away from the 3,000 channel corporate and chattering tourismo universe.

    You mentioned that the VPL has provincial archival material. The BC archives at Victoria’s provincial museum is also an excellent facility. I have found many great photos of historic sites all over the Lower Mainland and the rest of the province there.

    I would hope that protecting these resources as well as improved public access via digitizing them and putting the originals into deep, permanent storage would not be overtaken in any cost-cutting measure.

  • Bill Lee

    and how Vision compares with TEAM?
    “The Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) group is sponsoring a meeting at 7:00pm tonight DEC 05 2012 at the Hollywood Theatre to talk about where we are with City planning…..Of especial interest will be a panel discussion featuring Darlene Mazari, Jonathan Baker and Margeurite Ford who will discuss the community imput policies of the TEAM party — policies that have been swept aside by a number of recent municipal regimes.

  • Bill Lee

    Of course the recent ‘worst City librarian’ Sarah Singh has created lots of space at Central VPL by tossing out earlier papers from the floors.

    “But now things are digitized, isn’t that enough to throw away the originals”
    So much for later digitization standards, marginalia and DNA studies on the paper records.


  • Everyman

    If Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver is going to become a serious force in civic politics they need a less clunky moniker. It hardly trips off the tongue!

  • Silly Season

    Hmmm.@Everyman #10. Good point.

    How about… TEAM? 😉

    What are you waiting for?! The


    THE RENOWNED ‘T” For TEAM BEACON blazes onto the edge of the night…

    Help for a beleagured city and her library, community centres and parks and rec must surely be on the way…

  • Michael Kluckner

    Further to archival matters and the different turfs (turves?) of institutions: Jak King, the historian of Commercial Drive, needed to get microfilm reels of the Highland Echo newspaper, which were held only in the provincial archives in Victoria. Jak had no budget to camp in Victoria for the months it would take him to study the material and the provincial archives was unwilling to transfer the microfilms to the VPL or the archives. His only option was to purchase a set of microfilm reels for about $3,000! Fortunately, VanCity and the Vancouver Foundation chipped in to buy the set and donate it to VPL: see .

    And I thought I was a bit over-the-top describing the archives’ reading room as one of the city’s great public spaces. Yes, it has a sublime view (partially blocked by the gaudy tents of Bard on the Beach during the summer) and is tranquil like an ancient world. But then I tried thinking of other great public (indoor) spaces in the city: Waterfront Station, the lobby of the main post office, the Orpheum, the … uh … (I’m not including privately owned buildings here, needless to say).

  • . . . not including privately owned buildings . . . ” Pity Michael @ #12 because the lobby of the Marine Building is the best!

  • Michael Kluckner

    This is way off the original thread of this article (sorry Frances) … Roger, what do you think are the best publicly owned indoor spaces in the city? I named 3 in #12 (4 including the archives reading room) and would add the concourse of VPL to keep on the archives theme. But I can’t think of any others.

  • Waterfront Station and The Orpheum are great Michael.

    Public Buildings? Although spatially constricted, I’d have to say City Hall up at 12th and Cambie: beautiful walls and floor. What is it? Marble!

  • Hi Frances,

    Not sure if your contract with the G&M allows it, would it be possible for you to include your articles with your posts here instead of linking to the G&M?

    They have gone paywall now, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that with the G&M’s general mediocrity (your writing excluded of course) and the wealth of alternative sources on the internet, they are not nearly worth paying for the privilege of reading.


  • Diderottoo

    I did a very cursory analysis (attached file) of financial reports since 2006 – available here:, and note that while City revenues from taxes and fees are up by 56% over that time period, expenses for the City Manager’s and City Clerk’s Offices are up by 98%.

    There is a lot of meat in here for analysis that the public would be interested in – fees are up by 148% (permit fees, parking revenue, parking enforcement, etc.) but the services that those fees support directly, e.g., staff to process permits, mow the parks, etc., has only gone up by 10.5%. That is not even the amount of the wages increases over that time period. In other words, fewer staff are available to do the work which is why wait times and service to the public has actually gone down. This is how this council is paying for the growth in City Manager’s office, communications staff, etc.

  • Ned

    Diderottoo #17
    “This is how this council is paying for the growth in City Manager’s office, communications staff, etc.”
    Funny you brought that up. A few days ago I heard Robertson interviewed on the radio saying that the day when they were discussing and voting on the budget, in Council, there were very few people in the audience, little or no complains… meaning that “the council and myself and the city manager were doing a very good job…”
    That (fewer people) was because people have lives of their own, they are not paid to screw up the city’s finances, like they are (Vision)!
    People couldn’t influence the results for a mere bowling alley or a Main street development… Most definitely they could not influence a Billion dollars budget.
    Some (public) may not understand it (which is not to worry as the majority of our leadership don’t… either) and others wouldn’t bother to read through all the red tape and accounting mishmash.
    That’s why there were fewer people in there Herr Mayor!

  • Joe Just Joe

    Maybe someone on here will know. W2 is getting evicted from the Woodwards site that they were in rent free, but obligated to pay maintance fees for the 3floors they occupied of roughly $84K/yr but have failed to do. What part of the budget takes that hit?

  • Frances Bula

    @Mark. Like most freelancers, I have second publication rights to my stories, so I am posting the full article here as often as I can remember to do so. Please eep reminding me, though of course I disagree about the quality of the Globe — many writers there I am willing to pay for, and do. 🙂

  • Frances Bula

    @Michael. If it wasn’t clear from my story, I love the archives building. I’ve spent many an afternoon there. That’s why the proposal to combine the archives and VPL struck me as newsworthy. It’s not clear to me that the two can be completely combined. I’m waiting to hear the results of the current studies going on. People did mention to me, as I was researching this story, the issue of the freezers, etc. If you hear any more news, let me know.

  • waltyss

    @Ned #18 “Herr Mayor?” Back under your rock, Ned.

  • Bill Lee

    Re: #16 and #20
    The text of the Globe and Mail story below for those blocked by the paywall. (Many ways around it such as links from google news, etc. Some browsers are immune to Globe shenanigans)
    Vancouver budget comes with more than just numbers
    VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
    Published Friday, Nov. 30 2012, 8:00 AM EST. Last updated Friday, Nov. 30 2012, 11:31 AM EST

    Anyone who wants to see both main collections of Vancouver’s historic photographs has to spend time trekking across town at the moment.

    Some are at the Vancouver Public Library ‘s central branch, in the heart of downtown. Another large batch are at the Vancouver Archives, a small concrete bunker in Vanier Park by the Burrard Bridge.

    But that could change soon, thanks to the ongoing push from Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem and her finance department to streamline the number of buildings the city is running and, ultimately, reduce costs.

    The city is reviewing the overlap between the two collections and looking at whether some or all of the archives, possibly the photographs, could be moved to the central branch. That would become part of the expansion of the Moshe Safdie-designed central library – 20 years after the library was opened in 1995 – into the top two floors of the building and the roof garden above.

    That move is just a small part of the city’s just-released 177-page budget document, which doesn’t just provide a wealth of numbers but also a portrait of the city and a road map of its future direction. That makes it a very different budget from previous years, which have sometimes been bare-bones PowerPoints whose focus has typically been how to overcome, say, a $52-million gap between revenues and expenses.

    This time, with healthy increased revenues from construction fees and parks, the budget document has a no-drama estimate that taxes will go up a modest 2 per cent to cover the projected $1.148-billion in expenses. And it’s filled with information, not just about dollars but also performance measures and plans – like the possible library/archives combination – that were absent before.

    “It’s not about the money, it’s about what we are getting for the money. It tells a story to our citizens,” said Councillor Raymond Louie, chairman of the city’s finance committee. The report makes a point of itemizing the number of full-time city employees – a tight 6,619, or 80 less than three years previously – and the ways in which it is saving money, like the efforts to combine spread-out services.

    “You can see we’ve kept the numbers under control,” Mr. Louie said. “And when we took office last term, we said we have too many facilities.” Now the city is acting on that.

    The Vision Vancouver council had been criticized the last few years by the opposition Non-Partisan Association and residents for providing so little information about the way it was spending. But now the report is filled with a treasure trove of numbers about the highs and lows of the city. It still doesn’t have a breakdown of how the money allocated for the mysterious city manager’s office budget is spent – something that will be included in future reports, Mr. Louie says.

    But there are many other numbers. For example: Reference librarians answered 1,415,002 questions. City garbage crews picked up 6,500 abandoned mattresses in 2011, compared to 1,500 in 2010. The number of metered parking spaces in the city is going up (from 8,500 in 2008 to about 10,100 now) but the number of parking tickets is decreasing slightly, likely because of pay-by-phone options.

    As well, the city has a lot of plans. It is going to provide neighbourhoods with a first-ever pool of $1-million, for projects that local communities decide they want – a first-ever effort at what’s called “participatory budgeting.” It is going to put new, solar-powered trash bins throughout the downtown, which will only be picked up when a wireless signal tells city crews they are full. It is adding yet more parking meters in 2013, this time possibly at the Olympic village.

    And, as part of its greenest city plan, it is going to plant fewer annuals and more perennial plants in an effort to run the city on “more sustainable energy.”