The situation on Nanaimo’s downtown streets is prompting the city to look at spending another $400,000 on security over the next year and potentially $1.45 million-plus next year.
Nanaimo city councillors, staff and RCMP discussed the topic Monday at a governance and priorities meeting, as council members will be asked to make certain budget decisions as soon as Wednesday, April 14.
Dave LaBerge, the city’s manager of bylaw services, reported to councillors that the empty public spaces during the pandemic have created challenges for people who do security work downtown.
When encampments are “unchecked and unmanaged,” he said, they can become entrenched and conflict with the interests of people who do business or live in the area. When the encampments grow, “the signs of stress can become much more evident,” LaBerge said, and city staff and mayor and council receive complaints about public disorder, open drug use, accumulation of garbage, human waste and discarded needles.
LaBerge said the problems are complex and noted that the mayor and others have pointed to a lack of resources and commitments from senior levels of government.
“Local governments are always going to continue to struggle to manage the symptoms without more accountability, but in the interim, I think we’re all confident that thoughtful management of some of these symptoms can help improve the challenges that we do have,” he said.
His report noted that the city currently pays $135,000 for security in downtown parkades, $75,000 for the area of city hall, $31,000 for Pauline Haarer Elementary School and $147,000 as part of a partnership with the Old City Quarter business improvement association.
His report presented options to allocate another $400,000 in 2021 to expand private security throughout the downtown with a focus on night time, and create business cases for another $1 million for downtown security in 2022, plus $400,000 for the establishment of a permanent downtown sanitation team that would do overnight work, and additional spending on security at parkades including gates and CCTV upgrades.
Many other ideas beyond increased security were included in LaBerge’s report, which was prepared in consultation with other city departments and RCMP. He said social agencies providing mobile outreach can create “zones of dependency [that] perpetuate the entrenchment” and said drop-in facilities with access to social services could help. Economic revitalization will mean busier and safer streets, he said, and suggested the city could review its liquor control strategy and “provide every opportunity for a safe and vibrant post-COVID hospitality district.” Support and encouragement of downtown events, park wardens in downtown parks and funding for RCMP to be able to better prioritize downtown security were among the other suggestions.
Coun. Erin Hemmens suggested the system is in “distress” when the city is being asked to pay $1.5 million in security costs without having the tools, resources or knowledge to solve the underlying problems.
Coun. Tyler Brown expressed concern the city is “going down the wrong path” and said spending money on more security guards is “insanity” because it’s an example of doing the same thing and expecting different results.
“The idea of security and enforcement, I think we could be doing better by having a little bit more of a trauma-informed response and folks that can work with people in a different way,” Brown said.
Mayor Leonard Krog was among the council members who indicated support for increased security, saying it’s necessary to keep bailing out a leaky vessel until senior levels of government come to the rescue.
“We have some seriously ill individuals living on our streets and when they get referred to the criminal justice system they get punted from there, if they’re referred to the health system they get punted from there because ultimately there is no place for them…” Krog said. “In the meantime, we have a certain level of chaos and street disorder that is affecting businesses and individuals.”