On October 15, 2022, Vancouver voters approved three capital plan questions on the ballot, authorizing the City of Vancouver to borrow up to $495 million in additional funds. (Compared to the 2018 election with three capital plan borrowing questions amounting to $300 million.)
Looking at the wording of the three ballot questions regarding capital plan debt financing, were the three questions very long, confusing and written in a way to skew a ‘yes’ vote in support?
Perhaps voters could have received more complete information, more clearly worded, some of which we’ll discuss below. The ballot questions are listed on the City of Vancouver website here: https://vancouver.ca/your-government/capital-plan-borrowing-2022.aspx
These three questions take up one side of the ballot. For reference, we’ve included screenshots of ballot questions from the City’s webpage (see further below).
There appears to be no mention of ‘interest’ or the words ‘plus interest’ in the questions. The amount of new debt per resident is not stated. There’s no information provided about the current amount of accumulated debt on the City of Vancouver’s balance sheet, and thus residents are not able to make an informed decision on whether to take on more debt. With the way the questions are worded, it’s also unclear whether there would be any capital plan allocation from other parts of the City’s budget. Voters might be led to believe that if they vote against these borrowing questions, then there will be no investments in capital plan expenditures between 2023 and 2026.
The last official Census (May 2021) recorded a population of 662,248 residents in the City of Vancouver. A total of $495,000,000 borrowing is proposed. This works about to approximately $747.45 per resident (based on those census figures), and add to that all interest charges.
This information (debt per resident) as an aggregate is not stated clearly in the ballot questions. Nor is it broken down by amounts per resident for each of the questions.
So we calculated it, and here is a breakdown of the $747.45 per resident in new debt:
1. Transportation and core operating technology: $261.91 of new debt, plus interest charges for each resident of Vancouver (2021 Census)
2. Community facilities: $244.73 of new debt, plus interest charges for each resident of Vancouver (2021 Census)
3. Parks, public safety and other civic facilities, climate adaption, and other emerging priorities: $240.81 of new debt, plus interest charges for each resident of Vancouver (2021 Census)
There are no estimates of what the amount of interest would be on the debt. Neither is the duration of the debt stated.
The ballot questions do not accurately reflect the wording that goes into the bylaw when the debt is drawn upon. An example of a previously-approved bylaw can be seen here: https://council.vancouver.ca/20201104/documents/pspcbylaws1to5.pdf
For reference, we’ve included pages 19 and 20 of the noted bylaw further below.
The wording on page 19 of the document states:
“The City is hereby and firmly bound and its faith and credit and taxing power are hereby pledged for the prompt payment of the principal and interest of this debenture.”
The full weight of the obligations that would be undertaken by the City of Vancouver are not stated in the ballot questions. The City of Vancouver is clearly stating in the bylaw document that it is ‘firmly bound and its faith and credit and taxing power are hereby pledged for the prompt payment of the principal and interest of this debenture.’
The ballot questions omit the seriousness of the City’s obligations. Thus, the questions are biased and leading, and voters are forced to make an important decision on how to vote based on incomplete information.
Here’s the text of the actual agreement to borrow (for $100 million in 2020):
It’s as if voters were asked to include a blank cheque for $747 plus interest, not only for voters themselves but for every resident of Vancouver.
Capital Plan questions from the City’s website:
Amount 2021 Census Per resident
1) $173,450,000 662,248 $261.91
2) $162,075,000 662,248 $244.73
3) $159,475,000 662,248 $240.81
Total: $495,000,000 662,248 $747.45