Vancouver approves tax to help first responders battling opioid overdose crisis

By The Canadian Press
December 13, 2016 - 3:31pm Updated: December 14, 2016 - 10:28am

Vancouver has approved a small tax hike intended to help address the opioid overdose crisis.

Councillors passed a budget Tuesday that includes a 0.5-per-cent increase in property taxes to support frontline service providers, including firefighters who have been seeing multiple overdoses per day.

The BC Coroners Service recorded more than 620 fatal drug overdoses across the province between January and October, about 60 per cent of them linked to the deadly opioid fentanyl.

The city says in a new release that firefighters responded to 745 calls about drug overdoses in November, and crews had to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone 35 times.

Coun. Kerry Jang, who is a psychiatrist specializing in mental-health issues, told council last month the opioid crisis is the worst he has seen in his life.

“Many of my colleagues are exhausted. I’m exhausted, just assisting where possible, working with our partners to try and get the moving pieces together,” he said when council debated the tax increase at the time. “And people continue to die.”

A memo sent to city councillors by staff earlier this month said a 0.5-per-cent tax would raise $3.5 million. It suggested the revenue could be spent on additional mental-health support for firefighters and frontline workers, more overdose training for city staff, extra needle pickup in public places, and an extra medic unit to support the Downtown Eastside, which is at the centre of the drug crisis.

“It is clear … that the crisis is creating considerable stress on our staff and the community,” the memo said. “It would, therefore, be prudent to ensure there is capacity in the organization should it be required to deal with an escalating crisis.”

Council approved the levy as part of the city’s 2017 budget, which will see property taxes go up by a total of 3.9 per cent.

The city says the budget focuses on building new affordable housing, improving services and making Vancouver a greener community.

“The City of Vancouver plays a strong role in supporting our city’s economic leadership and enhancing the livability and quality of life for our residents,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a statement.

“Our economy is thriving and we are responding to a diverse set of needs as our city struggles with the fentanyl crisis and a huge demand for affordable housing.”

Last month, fire Chief John McKearney said crews at the fire hall in the Downtown Eastside have been making about 1,000 runs per month this year, compared with an average of 600 calls every month in past years as overdose reports pour in from the neighbourhood.

It has forced the department to redistribute resources, jurisdictions and staff.

Firefighters in Vancouver have long been the first responder to medical emergencies and earlier this year they were trained to use the opioid antidote naloxone in response to the rising number of deaths, McKearney said.

He said the repeated calls to drug-related health emergencies takes a toll on first responders.

Firefighters at the Downtown Eastside hall are allowed to work at the site for only a year and are then transferred to other locations in the city, reducing the mental health implications that come with the stress of the job, the chief said.


The Canadian Press

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