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Tax hike kept to 3%

Municipal council is on its way to reaching its goal of capping a tax increase at three per cent tax but that doesn't mean it's happy about the way it's getting there.

Municipal council is on its way to reaching its goal of capping a tax increase at three per cent tax but that doesn't mean it's happy about the way it's getting there.

"We set out to keep taxes to three per cent and we've done it," said Councillor Doug Hooper at Monday afternoon's council meeting. "But we've drawn down our reserves by 20 per cent so we get an F. Operationally we got a C or D in terms of sharpening our pencil. I think we've gone for a long walk in the woods and we're still in the woods. We have to change. We're getting there but we've not gone far enough. We have to wrap our minds around far more fiscal responsibility."

On Monday afternoon, council set about trying to find $127,000 in either savings or increased revenue in this year's budget to reach its target. It was one of several meetings where council went through various departments' proposed budgets and tried to trim costs. Now it feels ready to have the budget go to first reading this Monday night.

Several big projects are going through such as road improvements, a satellite fire station on the west side of the island, the OCP update, the ferry marshalling plan, the Tunstall Bay dock (to ensure secondary boat access to the island in case there is a temporary problem in Snug Cove) and $300,000 to finish the sewer plant upgrade.

In the past, council paid for such expenditures by dipping into reserves. Council is increasing its contributions to reserves this year but it's drawing a lot more money out to pay for services and projects.

On Monday, chief financial officer Karen Blow presented council with a list of possible budget cuts, with arguments for and against them. She said no one likes the recommendations; they were made simply in order to find the required savings.

The following are discussions about some of those budget items.


Chief librarian Tina Nielsen has already told council that she needs more money than last year in order to keep current service levels. On Monday, council considered taking an additional $6,000 out of the library budget, which was at last year's level. Councillor David Wrinch speculated that this would result in a day's loss of library hours.

Mayor Bob Turner didn't want to focus on what the departments could or couldn't do. "Our job is policy, not operations. Our job is to say we support a certain percentage of funding from operating costs and the staff does it... We need to understand consequences but I don't want too much debate on small particulars."

Councillor Peter Frinton said, "I'd like to know the impact. We're blindly cutting a budget. We know why the library budget went up; we're now paying proper union scale. Six thousand is not a big deal."

"There's a certain amount of blindness here; you get very attached to specifics," said Turner. "We have to be accepting of executive advice to council. This is not easy."

Frinton replied, "Then why aren't we spreading this around to other departments?"

Councillor Alison Morse said, "It is a political decision about level of service. So it is a political decision that library hours will be cut.... To hold the library flat, it just seems really unusual that we wouldn't have a cost of living allowance."

It was agreed to keep the $6,000 in the budget.

Initiate dog licensing

When staff looked at it in the past, it was felt that it would likely be revenue neutral. However, there is an advantage of having a database on island dogs. Given that the costs of implementing this would be high, with revenues coming in for only part of the year, Blow didn't think this was a potential source of revenue this year. Councillors agreed.

It will, however, be part of the core service review that council wants to undertake.

An additional $15 per water and sewer connection fee

This extra charge would more accurately reflect the municipality's administrative costs in providing those services. It would add $20,000 to revenues.

Councillor Morse noted that most local service areas have already had their budget meetings.

Council approved the added cost-recovery fee.

Planning department fees

Frinton says that most fees haven't been increased since the municipality was incorporated a decade ago. Council agreed to impose a retroactive cost of living increase to all those fees.

"I just don't see why we're delaying it; we're moving towards that policy," said Hooper. It's expected the increase could garner $14,000 this year. (The new fee structure would be imposed on July 1.)

Morse said the community charter says you have to justify fee increases. Staff would have to take the time to do the calculations. "If we're challenged, we have to show how we came up with [the increase]," she said.

Councillors felt that a COLA increase, applied retroactively for every year since the fee was establish, would withstand such scrutiny.

"We've lagged on quite a lot," said Frinton. "If we did a full review, it would be quite shocking."

Reduce community recreation budget

Blow suggested cutting the recreation budget by $36,500 with the rationale that it is not an essential service. However, because the director of community recreation is on holidays, it's not known how such a decrease will affect services.

This would mean the department's overall budget would go from $587,00 to $554,000. (Last year, the department brought in $175,000 of that $587,000 from fees.) In the end, council reduced the budget by $26,500. See below for more discussion.

One summer parks crew instead of two

This would save $11,000 but also reduce the level of maintenance. Turner asked why the roads department couldn't do some of the work. The savings would have to go into the community parks reserve.

Reduce engineering and operations budget by $12,000 to $24,500

Blow originally cut the budget by $24,500 but after talking to CAO Brent Mahood, who's also the director of engineering, she reduced it to $12,000.

"It's our biggest budget area and it would be a three per cent cut. It strikes me that we have to share the pain," said Turner. He said the key thing is the aggregate effect on the budget.

Frinton said there has to be a discussion with staff about whether it can be dropped by that amount.

Hooper said "We're still dropping the ball. It does mean changes [to expenditures] or else we're increasing taxation later."

He argued for a $700,000 roads and engineering budget, which would be a drop of $33,000.

Poole said, "I'd like to leave it at a $24,000 reduction, which has been identified by staff."

The rest of council agreed

Reduce grants in aid by $25,000

This was both suggested and rejected by Blow.

Hooper felt the grants budget should be dropped by 10 per cent, which would reflect the same level of reduction as other budget areas.

"I don't know why we would save them as sacred," he said, adding that the groups should go to membership for the shortfall.

Poole disagreed. "I think we get incredible service from the amount of money we spend. They use those grants to get more money."

In 2006, the grants were $132,000 and this year $141,000 was suggested, which is only a $9,000 increase in five years, she said. Cutting that amount "is dangerous because all these groups are basically surviving as it is." She wondered when organizations such as the arts council were able to give staff pay increases. "We're really shortchanging our community associations if we cut back."

Frinton said he had a fundamentally different view of what's an essential service. "I'd choose strong community over good roads any day. I don't take the premise that we have to protect certain budgets over others."

The library is flat over five years and the recreation budget is flat over five years. "When I ask people what's good about this community, they say we have a really good library and recreation services. The best thing we can ever do is give nickels and dimes out to these groups. I agree [with Hooper] that they should not become dependent but to say we're going to make that pot smaller... That's why I'm looking at things like garbage."

Whistler has no garbage pick up; people take their garbage to bins, he said. But Bowen's garbage costs are going up to $533,000 because of the increased gas and ferry fees to truck the garbage off island.

"There's no reason why we should be building in increments," he said. "Why, with the number of things that have been suggested [to be cut], is garbage getting the increase? I can't support a budget that's clawing away at other budgets and allowing that to go unvetted."

Hooper said the cuts were justified because "this is budget discipline. This is hard stuff, not soft stuff."

Turner said, "I'm going to consider spreading the pain evenly."

The proposed budget of $141,000 was maintained.

Reducing certain reserve funds

The community use reserve is quite healthy, the civic facilities fund is seed money for specific project.

Council decided not to add $30,000 to the civic facilities fund this year, nor $10,000 for the community use reserve. Frinton said council should consider increasing fees for the artificial turf field now that it's been in use for a year.

Bottom line

By the end of the three-hour discussion, council had either made cuts or added projected revenues that allowed it to reach its tax increase target of three per cent. Council plans to have first reading on Monday and welcomes public comment. The budget will be available at the office or on its website. The budget has to be approved by May 15 by law; council hopes for final adoption on May 2.