City manager says COVID-19 has strained resources but hopes for permanent change
City manager Steve Kanellakos is touched by the before-and-after photos he's seen of the people who've used Ottawa's daytime respite centres.
"Some of our residents who have come in, when they haven't had a haircut, and they've got long beards, and you see pictures of them after with a haircut and their beard has been trimmed — and it's just a wonderful story of just treating people with humanity," Kanellakos told CBC.
"It's a fantastic thing that our staff have done in our community."
The daytime drop-in centres, where people can use washrooms and showers, get a warm meal and connect with social services, were the result of the COVID-19 emergency. But they've been a "a game changer in terms of the health of all of these people who are requiring these services," says Kanellakos in a recent — and rare — wide-ranging interview.
The service has been such a success that he's advocating for respite centres — locations and funding still unknown — to be made permanent.
It's an unexpected positive outcome from a challenging year.
A whole lot has happened since the province imposed its first lockdown 12 months ago, about a week after the City of Ottawa's first confirmed COVID-19 case.
"It was around that point I realized that this isn't going to be someone else's problem — this is going to be our problem," says Kanellakos.
The city's emergency operations centre went into high gear, meeting virtually for the first time ever. Internal "task forces" were struck to oversee the monumental efforts needed to handle everything from reaching out to vulnerable residents, to assisting small businesses, to keeping the business of City Hall afloat.
And, in more recent weeks, the vaccine task force has required a monumental logistical effort, including 1,000 employees, many of them part-time city workers who were temporarily laid off last year.
Like other organization, say Kanellakos, the city was scrambling to respond to the ever-changing COVID-19 recommendations, trying to figure out how to keep employees safe. But not every organization has to pivot a ship of 17,000, about only 4,000 of whom could work from home. Thousands continued to deliver the essentials needed every day, from ambulance services, to clean running water, to garbage disposal.
While the one-year mark of COVID-19 had Kanellakos reflecting on how the pandemic strained capacities, he was equally game to discuss the opportunities it presented for permanent change, as well as the challenges ahead post-pandemic.
City services online before their time
COVID-19 forced the city's technological hand almost immediately. Online innovations that would have been conducted through years-long pilot projects were accomplished in weeks. Council, committee and community meetings all went virtual with remarkably few glitches. An update on how elected officials will meet this fall is coming soon.
And with physical information desks closed, the city shifted many services, like getting a parking permit or marriage licences, online. Kanellakos says that "made a huge difference to the safety of our staff and to the ease that the public would still access to these services."
This was particularly true in the planning department, where documents were able to be delivered — and paid for — electronically for the first time for many builders.
According to Kanellakos, the city "zeroed in" on the construction sector because it was allowed to keep operating during most of the pandemic. Staff realized that if the city put its permit system on hold, thousands could lose their jobs needlessly and the system would be backed up for months.
"And that never materialized," he says. In fact, the city issued 2.6 per cent more permits in 2020 than the previous year.
Local economy needs boosting
Of the task forces Ottawa has relied on to respond to the pandemic, the one on "economic recovery" is the most novel — the city had never before created an emergency group to address the local economy — and the most fraught.
There is little the city can do to assist individual businesses. Municipal governments are not allowed under provincial law to offer companies tax cuts or other financial assistance.
Still, there have been some efforts to help, from deferring property tax bills, to providing COVID-19-related messaging and information for retailers. The outdoor space available for some restaurants was expanded, a move many hope will become permanent, and patio hours were extended. But these are minor measures considering the struggle to survive that many mom-and-pop shops face.
"This is a community problem in terms of what's happening with many of our small businesses and our main streets," Kanellakos told CBC. "Lending the city support and voice to getting the community to rally around our businesses, that's probably the biggest thing we can do."
To that end, he says, city staff plan to bring a report to council's finance and economic development committee next month that will lay out a public relations campaign "to rebuild confidence in the community that … it's OK to go back out and shop, and do things and do it in a safe way."
The city will work with Ottawa Public Health on reassuring consumers about how to safely go back to patronizing local businesses. Tourism, Ottawa's third-largest economic generator, will also need special attention when restrictions on travel ease up.
"We need some runway and support for them to try and entice events to come," Kanellakos says, noting the 200th anniversary of the ByWard Market in 2027 might now demand the sort of hoopla that surrounded Canada's 2017 sesquicentennial.
"Maybe we're going to plant something bigger there than we would have normally thought, a little bit 2017-ish style, where we start making some really special events."
On the nearer horizon, the city has left open the possibility that special events or small, physical-distanced festivals could take place later this year.
'Period of incredible growth'
Kanellakos knows his insistence that the pandemic has opened up possibilities flies in the face of plenty of naysaying about Ottawa's future, including gloomy predictions about people fleeing downtown, big money being wasted on the LRT, and new condos lacking buyers who want to live in them. He isn't buying any of it. At least not yet.
"I really don't see an emptying of the downtown," says Kanellakos.
Sure, some downtown offices may not be as full as pre-COVID-19, but people will find other uses for that space.
"I think that gap's going to get filled by other generations who, once the pandemic is beyond us and people are getting vaccinated, want to be in the action."
That's not to say working life won't change, including for the city administration itself, which has tentative plans, when it brings staff back to its offices later this year, to implement a system where employees can book a workstation in the municipal building closest to their homes, within walking or cycling distance.
As for the LRT, Kanellakos says the O-Train is an "incomplete system" and needs to be extended in the long term to all sections of the city for it to make sense.
"It's a game-changer if we get Stage 3. We need transportation to those outskirts of the city because that's where it's growing.
"It's not for the next 10 years. It's for multiple generations in the city."
There are plenty of pressures facing City Hall this year. The treasurer's department is still crunching the numbers that the federal and provincial funds meant to shore up municipalities will be enough to cover revenue shortfalls for 2021.
The federal government has yet to decide what its return-to-work plan looks like, and its 150,000 employees greatly affect the transit system's operation as well as the local economy.
When it comes to paying for the LRT, the second stage now under construction is fully funded, but Stage 2 out to Kanata and Barrhaven — at a cost of almost $5 billion — isn't on the city's long-term transportation plans until after 2031. Recent hopes that timeline could be hastened might be dashed as both provincial and federal governments wrestle in the coming years with multibillion-dollar deficits forced far higher by the pandemic economic slump.
Kanellakos gets that. He's also conscious of how hard the last year has been on residents and business. Still, he's optimistic about the future.
"I think we're going to enter a period of incredible growth in Ottawa and economic development that we've never experienced, despite the pandemic."