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Executive Summaries Mar 25, 2020

COVID-19: Impact of Measures Imposed By the Government of Québec on Municipalities

By

Isabelle Landry, Sophie Boulanger, Émile Côté-Soucy

Monopolizing public attention for more than two weeks now, COVID-19 is forcing all jurisdictions to make a series of decisions to act collectively with the government measures announced each day to control the spread of the virus.

Municipalities are no exception and will continue to see their operations particularly disrupted. In this article, we will suggest sound management measures to deal with the current pandemic. We will also provide an update on some of the issues that municipalities are likely to face.

Management Measures

On one hand, it is important for municipalities to keep abreast of the latest government announcements and to follow the recommendations of the Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l’Habitation (the “Ministry”). The Ministry suggests that municipalities develop a specific pandemic intervention plan. The preparation and communication of such a plan will allow municipalities to keep their citizens informed of their actions while ensuring the availability of resources to continue providing emergency services to the population.

On the other hand, as employers, municipalities need to be proactive in managing their labour relations. In this regard, we refer you to an article published earlier this month on the concrete actions we advise employers to take.

Impact of Government Measures on Municipal Operations

The recently adopted government measures are unprecedented and Quebec municipalities must adjust their operations accordingly. In order to ensure that municipalities are able to meet their legal obligations while complying with the health measures put in place by the government, the latter has adopted various measures.

First, by Ministerial Order 2020-004 dated March 15, 2020, the Minister of Health and Social Services (the "Minister") changed the usual functioning of regular municipal council meetings. Indeed, during the public health emergency period, the council and executive or administrative committee of any municipality are authorized to sit behind closed doors and their members are authorized to participate, deliberate and vote during a meeting using any means of communication.

Second, by Ministerial Order 2020-008 dated March 22, 2020, the Minister ordered the suspension of any procedure forming part of the decision-making process of a municipal body involving the displacement or gathering of the public, including any referendum procedure. However, an exception to this rule is made for any action designated as a priority by a two-thirds vote of the members of the municipal council. For these cases deemed to have priority, the usual public process is now replaced by a written consultation to be announced by public notice published 15 days in advance. This measure, which includes public meetings usually required for the adoption of a loan by-law or the amendment of a zoning by-law, will remain in effect for the duration of the public health emergency.

Finally, in the same ministerial order, the Minister specifies that the days included in the public health emergency period will not be counted in the duration of the freeze effect provided for in sections 114 and/or 117 of the Act respecting land use planning and development, i.e. the period during which a building permit cannot be issued following the adoption of a notice of motion to amend the zoning, for example. This freeze will be extended for at least 60 days following the end of the public health emergency period in order to give municipalities a chance to restructure.

Cancellation of By-Elections

On March 14, 2020, by Ministerial Order 2020-003, the Minister ordered any returning officer to cancel any electoral poll and any advance poll connected to an electoral poll scheduled to be held during the public health emergency period. Consequently, during this period, the concerned municipal councils will continue to sit despite the vacancies as long as they hold a quorum. Following this period, the electoral process will have to be restarted.

Municipal Taxation

There are a number of tax measures that municipalities can take to help their taxpayers through this difficult time, such as:

  • decreasing the penalty they had previously set on tax arrears;[1]
  • extending the time limits for paying municipal taxes or changing the payment schedule;[2]
  • modifying the interest rate on tax arrears, for a period to be determined by them.[3]

In this period of uncertainty when the Premier of Québec recently announced the establishment of measures to put Québec "on hold", the action of municipalities is essential in order to reassure citizens and maintain essential services on their territory.

For 25 years, BCF's mission has been to support local businesses. We know the issues you are facing and our Municipal Law team is available to help you use the resources at your disposal. Do not hesitate to contact Partner Isabelle Landry if you have any questions about the impact of these measures on your activities.

[1] Section 250.1 of the Act respecting municipal taxation
[2] Section 252 of the Act respecting municipal taxation
[3] Section 481 of the Cities and towns act and section 981 of the Municipal code

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