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Council’s first ‘virtual’ meeting: MAT tax delayed; cab fare hikes to be reviewed

With minimal connection glitches and a quick appearance from councillor Kate MacNaughton’s cat, Prince Edward County council’s first ‘virtual’ meeting went smoothly Wednesday night.

Using an application called ‘Zoom’ councillors, the mayor, CAO and staff were brought together from their homes into a virtual stream for their first meeting since mid-March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related mandatory changes to how business can be done.

Council moved swiftly through approvals and information from numerous items on the agenda. Two required more consultation – the new four per cent Municipal Accommodations Tax (MAT), and a hike in fares for taxi cabs and services.

Council supported staff’s recommendation that a MAT bylaw be approved, but enactment delayed until a future date, yet to be announced.

“There is the risk that a fixed date in the future could be too early, hindering tourism recovery, or too late, losing opportunity for critical destination marketing financial assistance,” stated Ashley Stewart, Destination Development and Marketing Co-ordinator in a report to council. “Further, as staff engage in the public consultation phase they will be able to receive feedback on an industry-supported enactment date.”

A minimum of 90 days public notice is to be given for engagement with the public and industry in various forms. Each commercial accommodator and licensed STA operator will also receive a letter from the municipality.

The bylaw to effect MAT June 1 was to be brought to council March 24, however due to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic and the province’s stay home orders, the meeting was cancelled.

“As a result, a June 1 implementation date for a MAT is no longer realistic,” said Stewart. “Setting a future implementation date is also challenging as the situation is evolving daily and the longer-term impacts on the economy are unknown.”

Stewart noted many local accommodations operators have suffered greatly with bookings taking a steep and immediate decline. The date they can re-open their doors is also uncertain.

She stated the Prince Edward County Accommodations Association StayPEC estimated a loss of gross sales amounting to $7,464,895 and 266 affected employees. Those estimates, Stewart noted, only represent the membership of StayPEC.

“The loss across the accommodations sector as a whole in Prince Edward County will be much greater,” stated Stewart… “With an approved MAT bylaw, businesses will know what to expect when MAT is enacted and staff will be able to continue discussions with booking platforms related to collection and remittance.”

Concerns with the effect of closures and changes due to the pandemic also affected how council felt about increases to the taxi fare rates in the County.

They have sent the report back to staff, seeking consideration of a percentage to phase-in increases, ways to improve affordability and revise the fee schedule.

While supporting cab operators who have not seen an increase since 2006, councillors were concerned some of the new fare rates suggested may be too steep in light of those using the service being affected by losses in income, and in light of the County’s current transit plan being pushed back – both due to the pandemic.

Fares within Picton limits are proposed to be $10 (currently $6.50) and within two kilometers of Picton at $12. (Cab companies noted they have been unsuccessful maintaining service in Wellington due to lack of business.) Fares beyond would be $1.80 per kilometre.

Councillors suggested an $8 fee for Picton and $10 for within two kilometres, including Picton Heights.

The bylaw would apply to taxis, limousine businesses and delivery businesses regularly used for hire, their owners and operators.

The staff report is to be brought back to council May 12.

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