The municipality is in the last weeks of reviewing its five-year financial plan, with an eye on reducing the property tax increase below 10 per cent.
The double digit rise was one of the main objections during the public consultation process. The 10.42 per cent jump in 2022 is scheduled to be followed by a 10.74 per cent leap in 2023. Numbers were based on the leap in average island property values from $1,229,648 to $1,538,776, which would change the average municipal tax from $2,673 to $2,960.
Budget discussion at Monday’s council meeting therefore revolved mainly about how to get this number down into single digits. Chief financial officer Kristen Watson explained many of the reasons for the increase cannot be changed, such as debt repayments and most capital projects. She says work is underway on the community centre and Phase 2 of the multi-use path (MUP), the fire hall is nearly complete, and the new fire truck has already been ordered and should be delivered in the next few months.
The emerging problem of the storm sewer collapses along Bowen Island Trunk Road are also an issue that needs immediate attention, and is holding up work on the MUP. $1.5 million has been allocated for replacing the pipes, $1 million from reserves and $500,000 from grant money. “This project must proceed. It’s impacting the safety of Trunk Road itself, as well as the sidewalks,” says Watson. Several holes have already opened up along the road and on the sidewalk.
Some budget areas identified for potential trimming
But one capital project that may open up some money is the planned compost facility. While work hasn’t begun yet, grant conditions for the project say it has to begin by October. Watson says if the province is agreeable to delay this until next year, the municipality (BIM) would be able to free up its $500,000 share of the $1.5 million project (grant funding is covering the remaining $1 million).
Watson added this would actually be preferable, since BIM doesn’t currently have the money to cover their contribution anyway. They’ll likely have to borrow the money, but Watson says if fundraising for the community centre goes well, one of the $500,000 contributions set aside for that project could be used instead for the compost facility.
The majority of the property tax increase, 60 per cent, is attributed to rising operating costs. Watson says some of these are set costs, such as collective agreement provisions, insurance premiums, fuel, and rent. But some could be examined, including professional development and training, communications, maintenance, and community grants.
Council was also tasked with deciding on several other areas of the budget, ones that could both raise or lower the current 10.4 per cent rise.
One of these was a request for additional staffing at a cost of $89,000. This amount, while included in public consultation, wasn’t included in the final numbers total, and would bump up property taxes even further. Council acknowledged the extra staff were likely necessary, but weren’t comfortable with adding it to the plan.
“We haven’t got it in the budget right now, but I am sure that would not have been put forward had there not been a perfectly sensible reason to do so,” said Coun. Michael Kaile. “This is probably very much needed, and we are doing nobody any great favours right now with the workload by saying no.”
Coun. Rob Wynen warned “If we don’t have staff to deal with the little problems… they start turning into really big problems, and now costs actually start escalating. A lot of times what looks like saving money on an FTE here, in the long run actually winds up costing us way more money, with more problems and less services.”
It was decided not to approve this request unless savings could be found elsewhere in the budget.
Library's financial request debated
The library found their numbers up for discussion as well. A $368,504 operating budget was put forward by the library board, a total in line with recent year-over-year increases. Coun. Alison Morse suggested they “look at ways to reduce their budget,” and was joined by Kaile in wondering if they could bring the number down.
Coun. Sue Ellen Fast advocated for the library’s request. “During the time of COVID they’ve been a really significant player in holding the tapestry of the community together. In terms of making their programs work, going digital, making computers available to people, helping people with digital skills that people needed to suddenly have in order to participate in all the regular things when suddenly everybody went online.
“I’m not in support of reducing the budget ask, because the demand for those kinds of services is rising as COVID continues,” says Fast.
Council decided to ask the library board if there was anywhere they could trim their total.
Tourism Bowen turned down
One group whose request did not find much favour was Bowen Island Tourism. Normally receiving $20,000 a year, their 2022 ask was for $48,000, a 140 per cent increase.
“I’ve spent my life in tourism, and quite honestly… my message to the tourism people is, we’re all having to make difficult decisions here. See if you can find some volunteers,” responded Kaile.
“The library have volunteers, Knick Knack Nook have volunteers, umpteen other people have volunteers… I don’t know why it is impossible,” added Kaile. “Because I’m sorry, we’re going to have to look for some alternative solutions.”
Tourism’s request was unanimously rejected, and their usual $20,000 budget approved.
Feedback on the staffing request, library board update, and an entire final look at the budget itself will be presented at a special council meeting this Monday, May 2. The final budget is due May 15.
Council also decided not to renew the alternative tax bylaw, which expired this year. Last year late fees were assessed at a rate of two per cent on unpaid property tax after the July deadline, and an additional eight per cent on any unpaid portion after August. This year Bowen returns to a straight 10 per cent late fee following the July deadline.
It was also determined property tax rates would stay the same for 2022. The 1:1 ratio of property tax rates between business and residential drew particular discussion, but council decided more consultation needed to be done before raising the tax rates on businesses. The issue will be back up for consideration next year.