New Westminster ponders ethical investments

Coun. Patrick Johnstone would like the City of New Westminster to take another look at its investment portfolio.

At its Sept. 30 meeting, council received a staff report on the city’s investment portfolio, which had a balance of $191 million as of Aug. 31, 2019.

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“The portfolio balance is $10 million higher than it was at Aug. 31, 2018. The increase is partly due to funds being set aside for major projects. The funds are expected to be utilized as the projects progress,” said the report. “The city has earned $2.8 million on its investments for the year-to-date period.”

According to the report, the majority of the city’s investments are with the Municipal Finance Authority’s pooled investment funds and are invested in longer term investments. In order to diversify the city’s investments, the city has also invested in high-interest savings accounts with the Municipal Finance Authority and the Scotiabank.  

In March 2018, Coun. Patrick Johnstone voiced concerns that some of the city’s investments may be at odds with the city’s values. At the time, he noted the city had supported resolutions through the Union of B.C. Municipalities asking the Municipal Finance Authority to provide options for divesting itself of investment in fossil fuels, but had made little headway on that front.

In the spirit of the Sept. 27 Global Climate Strike and discussions the city has been having about the climate emergency, Johnstone said it’s time to take another look at what can be done to support more socially responsible investments.

“We had some reporting back at the time that it didn’t seem like it was a positive path for us,” he told council Sept. 30. “I would like to take this opportunity to ask that staff report back to us again and have another go at it.”

Council approved a motion by Johnstone to have staff report back to council before the next financial year on options for fossil fuel divestment that are available to the city and to outline the process and any implications of moving funds away from investments in the Municipal Finance Authority, in the event it can’t provide a fossil fuel-free investment product to the city.

Mayor Jonathan Cote, who is now a member of the Municipal Finance Authority’s board, said there previously weren’t enough municipalities for the MFA to create the type of divestment fund Johnstone is suggesting.

“One area that is moving forward this year, though, is a new mortgage fund, which may actually achieve the same thing,” he said. “I’d love to have staff look into that new mortgage fund, which gets us away from the bond fund, which is where my understanding is the concerns lie with this particular issue.”

Cote said it would also be worthwhile for staff to engage with other communities on the issue of ethical investments through the Municipal Finance Authority.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said there seemed to be a big push to divest a few years ago, but it seems to have decreased a bit.

“I do think the time to do this is now,” she said. “If we have to go on an outreach campaign to talk to other municipalities, I think we should do it as soon as possible so they know that we are thinking of doing this.”

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