Ucluelet is proposing licence fee increases across all sectors of its local business community and is putting together a second meeting to discuss that plan with its constituents.
Mayor Dianne St. Jacques told the Westerly News on Monday night that the meeting is being set up, but a specific date had not yet been set.
The decision for a second meeting was made during a closed-meeting St. Jacques and the rest of Ucluelet’s municipal council had earlier in the day to discuss the feedback they received during a public open house on Jan. 23.
Roughly 30 locals attended the open house, but many suggested more would have shown up if they had known about it and that the district should have done more to spread the word that it was happening. The district’s efforts to raise awareness of the event were limited to social media channels that some locals suggested aren’t effective at reaching the town’s diverse population.
“I feel that it was not advertised correctly and there were a large percentage of business owners in town that were unaware that it was actually happening,” local pet shop owner Carla Anderson told the Westerly after the meeting. “They have all of our mailing addresses, as they send us our business licenses and our renewals every year, so I feel that that would have gotten out to all of the registered business owners in town.”
The open house followed an informal format with no chairs set up to allow space for attendees to peruse three poster-boards that listed the amount each specific licence would go up by.
No presentations were given and the conversation was not moderated, but members of Ucluelet’s council, including St. Jacques, as well as district staff were on hand to answer questions.
The event evolved into a group discussion about 30 minutes in and, during that discussion, several attendees suggested a more structured setting would have been preferred with some pointing out that minutes were not being taken.
St. Jacques told the Westerly outside the meeting that the open house format was chosen to facilitate free flowing conversations between locals, councillors and staff.
“We liked the idea of an open house and having a chance to mill around and having all of us there and the opportunity to talk to people one-on-one and in groups,” she said.
“[During] formal meetings, from what we’ve found, some people, not all, are shy or intimidated to put their hand up and stand up and you don’t get the same opportunity to interact back and forth like a real conversation.”
Anderson said the open house format was a poor choice.
“I was a bit shocked actually,” she said. “I didn’t find it a professional approach to the situation. I feel that a formal question and answer session would have been more productive.”
Longtime local Pieter Timmermans also attended the meeting and said he was surprised to walk into the unstructured arrangement.
“We should have been sitting in the council chambers. Council should have been up front and people, in a very orderly way, should have been allowed to discuss it,” he said.
He said he approached district staff and questioned the set up, asserting, “This is willy-nilly. You’ve got people talking all over the place. Nobody’s writing anything down. Nobody knows what all the answers are.”
Storeowner Susan Lee agreed and said a presentation should have been given first to give attendees a firm handle on what they were discussing.
“The information wasn’t presented clearly and in a way that we could digest,” she said. “We were all talking, but we didn’t really know what we were talking about because we didn’t have the information presented clearly.”
She said she was unable to get firm answers to her questions because the unmoderated nature of the discussion led to speakers being interrupted and too much time being spent on unrelated issues.
“I wanted to know how much revenue was going to be generated and what they were planning to use it for. I wanted to know the rationale of why they came up with this method and what the role of the bylaw person would be and what other options they may have considered,” she said.
“It doesn’t feel like there was a lot of discussion of alternatives or creative ways to raise money or lower costs or make efficiencies in the district. It’s just ‘Let’s just ask businesses to pay.’ It feels like it’s just one more burden that’s being placed on business and there seems to be many.”
Several attendees raised the idea of increasing property taxes, instead of business license fees, to pay the bylaw enforcement bill and Anderson questioned the fairness of asking the business community to cover the cost.
“I 1,000 per cent support Ucluelet having a full time bylaw officer,” she said.
“I’m very pleased that this is happening. I just don’t feel that myself, as a business owner, should have to pay for it…I believe this is a community issue and it needs to be addressed at a community level and I do believe our property taxes are in place to budget for things like bylaw officers.”
Timmermans said small business owners are an important local sector that’s already being hit hard by other expenses.
“This town is run by entrepreneurs…We don’t have government pensions; we have to fund our own pension plans,” he said adding business owners had no warning before the increased fees were presented.
“We knew Hydro was coming up because they told us a couple years ago. We knew car insurance was going up, they’ve been talking about that since last year. But, this came as a real surprise.”
He suggested the proposed fee increases are too high across the board and that smaller increases should be considered.
“It shouldn’t be such a large amount so quickly,” he said.
Lee agreed and suggested many small businesses have shallow pockets to draw from.
“When tourists come to a small town, they go to all the little funky retail stores and all the little funky businesses and that’s what they see. That’s the character of the town. Throughout the year, we’re also the ones that provide the variety and options for local residents so there’s alternatives to just the couple big stores,” she said.
“The small retail people in Ucluelet are the ones least able to afford an increase and that was probably the majority of the attendees at the meeting because it affects us the most…Most small business in Ukee would be considered pretty marginal. We’re not raking it in. We’re just trying to support ourselves and, maybe, a couple part-time employees.”
St. Jacques said increasing property taxes instead of business licence fees to pay for bylaw enforcement is “on the table,” but added council is wary of any tax increase.
“Could we tax for it? Absolutely we could and, if that’s what they prefer we do as a majority, then we’ll talk about that, or maybe split it up and do a bit of both,” she said. “We’re always so conscious of what we’re asking from our property owners.”
She added the district is open to creative ideas from the public.
“We’re always trying to think outside the box so that we don’t impact our taxpayers, if at all possible. I would love for them to come back with some ideas that haven’t been presented so far,” she said.
“That kind of participation is invaluable and it’s so appreciated….That’s what makes for a great community.”
She added that, while all feedback is valued, a decision must be made.
“None of us want to be seen as just shoving something down people’s throats,” she said.
“We want to show our appreciation for people that did come out and acknowledge what they said, but at the end of the day, we do have to make that decision. We are the responsible five that has to do this, so we’ll take it all in.”
Ucluelet’s municipal council was expected to discuss their plans for the next meeting during their regular council meeting on Tuesday night.