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BIA budget cut off for rest of year

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

The Downtown Oshawa Business Improvement Area (BIA) will not be receiving any more money from the City of Oshawa for 2020.

With the BIA’s budget increasing from $251,000 in 2019 to $649,000 in 2020, members would have seen a 75 to 500 per cent increase to their tax levy, causing an increase of $40,000 for some businesses.

However, council voted to cut the BIA’s budget for the rest of the year, and cap it at $268,375.

This amount was already advanced to the organization by the city and will be the BIA’s budget for the remainder of the year.

The levy rate will also be adjusted to match the new budget.

Delegates at the meeting raised several concerns regarding the BIA’s ability to be open and transparent with its members.

Former Oshawa councillor and local business owner Louise Parkes, who initially brought the tax levy issue forward, says she’s been having trouble receiving information from the BIA.

“I have no idea who’s spending my money,” she says, noting the BIA website was down for seven months as well, restoring only recently, which made it even more difficult to find information.

Ward 5 City and Regional Councillor Brian Nicholson asked Parkes, who has worked with the BIA in different capacities, if she has ever seen a “refusal to provide information” from the BIA before.

She was quick to state she had never seen one before now.

“It was an open book [when] I was involved with the BIA,” she says. “This, to me, is unprecedented. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

While she doesn’t appreciate how the BIA currently practices business, she says there are good people at the organization with good intentions, but they have a “fundamental misunderstanding of their role.”

Ultimately, Parkes explains she has always supported the BIA, but she is concerned with the increase in the tax levy, as well as governance issues – especially during COVID-19.

A number of businesses needed to close down due to the pandemic, Parkes included, who says she has lost 70 per cent of her revenue during this period.

“[Businesses] need to retain some cash so [they] can get employees back and working,” says Parkes. “We don’t have the money in our wallets to pay for a $400,000-plus budget.”

Darryl Sherman, president of Wilson Furniture, told council he is weighing in because he is “trying to help.”

Sherman expressed concern regarding the budget, as he says he’s been told the money given to the BIA by the city has already been spent.

“So far, everyone I know has been told it’s all gone and all spent. Where? I’ve been told it’s none of my business,” he says.

Sherman is also past president and chair of the BIA, and says while he knew not everyone would agree with his decisions, he always tried to remain as transparent as possible.

Sherman was asked by Ward 5 City Councillor John Gray if he made it a point of providing financial information to BIA members.

“Everything was available, and it was available quickly every month,” explains Sherman.

Speaking with The Oshawa Express after the meeting, Parkes says she supports the decision made by council.

“Through COVID-19 it just was unaffordable,” she says, adding it was too ambitious of a budget, especially during an economic crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Ward 4 City Councillor Derek Giberson told The Express he doesn’t support the decision made by council, as he says some voices in support of the BIA weren’t heard.

“I’m deeply disappointed that some council members decided to give priority to some voices, while wilfully sidelining many others,” says Giberson.

He believes council chose to go back to the former status quo as opposed to “moving Oshawa forward.”

“There were also some very questionable comments and words used by a few members of council to unduly amp up the tone of opposition to the current BIA, that I believe were very poor choices of words,” he says.

Giberson adds Oshawa’s BIA is “one of the most underfunded” in Ontario.

“The levy change was going to correct that. Council just pushed our downtown backwards 10 years by letting a campaign in intentional obfuscation win the day,” he says.

Giberson says this won’t be the last time this item will be presented to council, and expects to see if on the agenda again soon.

Speaking on behalf of the BIA, board chair Ivano Labricciosa says the organization will still proceed with its purpose and objectives for downtown.

“We’re still here to basically act on beautifying, enhancing, preserving, developing opportunities that showcase the downtown, and creating economic development and jobs, promoting, marketing and developing pride in our community, and enhancing our quality of life,” he says.

Labricciosa says the BIA will do this to the very best of their abilities for members, while also respecting council’s decision.

“Essentially, they’ve made a decision, and we respect them for it,” he says.