Whitehorse city council voted to continue waiving transit and parking meter fees in light of COVID-19 during a special council meeting on April 9. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Free transit, parking will continue in Whitehorse

Penalties, interest eliminated on utility bills until Sept. 30

The City of Whitehorse will continue to provide free public transit and downtown parking for the time being while also eliminating penalties and interest for late payments on utility bills owed to the city until Sept. 30.

Whitehorse city council passed the resolutions at a special meeting April 9.

The city originally suspended parking meter fines and transit fares March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures put in place.

An end date of April 13 for the free parking and transit was originally set, with officials noting it would be looked at again closer to April 13. At the April 9 meeting, members were presented with reports stating the public health emergency declared by the territory’s chief medical officer of health Brendan Hanley on March 16 continues.

Members agreed the city should continue to offer free parking and transit until the emergency declaration is rescinded.

Coun. Samson Hartland pointed out the wording of the resolutions now means the matter won’t have to keep coming back to council while the health emergency continues in the territory.

“This makes sense,” Coun. Jan Stick commented before voting on the transit fares.

Coun. Jocelyn Curteanu described the free parking as a “very small price” to pay while Coun. Steve Roddick pointed out there’s many essential workers keeping store shelves stocked who use public transit.

Meanwhile, the decision to eliminate penalties and interest for late payments of utility bills comes in light of the many layoffs and business closures due to COVID-19.

As Brittany Dixon, the city’s manager of financial services, told council: “Some residents and local businesses are experiencing increasing financial strain resulting from the loss of employment or closure of business as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In conjunction with other municipalities, the City of Whitehorse is considering changes to the way billing and collection for utilities and other services could be provided, with a focus on providing citizens and businesses with additional payment options.”

While regulations for property tax collection falls under the territory’s tax act (and work is underway by the territory to look at that issue), under the Municipal Act the city can allow temporary relief from interest charges and penalties on its utility bills when there is an emergency.

“These measures would provide relief for customers who may not be able to afford to pay their bills,” Dixon said. “By suspending late payment charges, utility customers will be in a position to choose whether they are able to delay payments for utility services without negative financial impact.”

Preauthorized payments will continue to be collected unless a customer cancels their preauthorization plan. Dixon said customers can cancel by emailing the city or by making an appointment if they’re not able to use email. Council members were again vocal in their support for the move.

“People are struggling,” Coun. Laura Cabott said. “People are finding it difficult to pay their bills.”

She described the penalty/interest relief as a creative, fair, responsible way the city can offer some financial relief to citizens.

As Roddick put it: “This is something we can act on immediately.”

Hartland suggested the Sept. 30 timeline could be a date the territory considers as it looks at the issue of potentially deferring property tax payments this year.

Meanwhile, it will be at least April 14 before a decision is made on whether the city will enforce its bylaw aimed at keeping cardboard from being mixed in with regular waste coming into the landfill.

The city has been asking residents to hold on to their recycling while the two recycling firms in the city are shut due to COVID-19, though officials have also stated those who aren’t able to store their recycling can mix it in with their household waste.

“With the actions taken by the local recycling processors, the Waste Management Facility will see cardboard exceed the 10 per cent threshold of the total load that is set out in Schedule D of the Waste Management Bylaw,” Peter O’Blenes, the city director of infrastructure and operations, said in his report to council. “This will mean that unsorted waste fees would be applied if cardboard is in excess of 10 per cent of a waste load.”

O’Blenes then put forward the recommendation the city not enforce the regulations around cardboard at the landfill until one month after the public health emergency declaration has been rescinded.

The additional month would allow time to process cardboard placed in dumpsters or garbage bins before the declaration ends.

A lengthy discussion among council followed with some members pointing to the extensive work done to keep cardboard out of the landfill. There were also concerns brought forward by Raven Recycling officials over cardboard ending up in the landfill, council members pointed out.

“To go backwards here, even if it’s for a few months, that troubles me,” Cabott said.

She initially suggested a two week deferral on the matter, but Coun. Dan Boyd moved for it to be deferred only until April 14.

That leaves just one business day following the long weekend for city staff to get in touch with officials at Raven about the issue and their concerns, but Boyd said an amendment could be made at the April 14 meeting if more time is needed to look at the issue. Questioned by Cabott on the likelihood of actually having a discussion with Raven before the meeting, city manager Linda Rapp replied staff would try to reach Raven officials but that she was not sure about their availability.

“We can give it our best shot,” she said.

Mayor Dan Curtis was the only member of council to vote against moving the matter to the next council meeting, wanting to see it dealt with at the special meeting.

Curtis was also the only member of council physically at the meeting to chair the session. Council has altered its meeting format in light of social distancing practices so that the member chairing the meeting (typically the mayor or deputy mayor) is the only member physically present. Other attend via conference call with staffing at the session also kept to a minimum.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

Whitehorse city council