Operating budget talks began on an optimistic note as city administration worked overnight to bring down the proposed property tax hike on Wednesday.
Roughly $744,000 in savings were found after some juggling with numbers. That included adjusting the gas price to reflect new projections and factoring in the RCMP “soft” vacancies at the end of year. Those are the positions that are not filled because of various forms of leaves.
The tweaks bring the proposed property tax hike to 3.15 per cent from 3.77 per cent. The budget was tabled at 3.78 per cent in December.
And that is where the recommended property hike stayed after four hours of debate despite attempts by council to bring it down further on the second day of operating budget talks.
“We are very pleased that we are down to 3.15 per cent,” said Mayor Tara Veer. “Council is having some rigorous debate. I think ultimately it is reflect of where our community is at and recognizing that we are in a deeper recession then we were in 2008 and we need to recognize that.”
Veer said the intent of council is to try to arrive at the lowest number possible recognizing that it is charged with being responsible for the financial decisions of the community.
“But I think there is a recognition on council’s part that we don’t want to arrive at that number artificially,” said Veer. “Having engaged in deep service level or infrastructure cuts in the past, our community responds the other way saying that there are shortfalls and we need to adjust issues in the community. So I think we are trying to find the right balance to serve our citizens and honours the commitments that we made to our citizens and do it the most rigours financial way.”
Council, however, successfully trimmed a total of $37,000 from two line items — stopping security checks on the old RCMP building ($12,000) and cutting the temporary procurement resources in half to $25,000. The item will be up for discussion again at mid-year budget review in August.
Coun. Tanya Handley unsuccessfully argued to cut the one per cent growth revenue contribution of $1.2 million to the capital amenities fund in half to $600,000 in 2016.
Last year council established the capital amenities fund, where one per cent of the growth revenue into a fund to pay for projects in the 10-year plan.
Handley said this motion is not about amenities rather about how they can save more for the taxpayers in light of the current economic reality. She said there is no service reduction as opposed to other items in the budget. She said future budgets including this one could choose to add to the percentage once the economy bounces back.
“I think what it really does is show our citizens that we hear them and that we are just as concerned about job loss and the economy as they are,” she said. “People feel that we need to pull back and this is an area where I feel we could pull back without too much damage to service levels.”
But council reasoned the implications would be too far reaching.
Chief Financial Officer Dean Krejci told council that the reduction would force the city to ultimately reduce or eliminate projects in the capital plan, if it did not find additional funding sources.
The city would lose $6 million in the fund for projects in the 10-year plan.
Coun. Lynne Mulder said this issue was debated long and hard. Mulder said the city needs to look to the future. She started on council when taxes were raised 10 and 11 per cent because previous councils had “robbed Peter to pay Paul’ and did not put money into infrastructure.”
l Council slammed the province over the loss of $455,000 in funding for social housing.
Last spring the province notified the city it would not pay roughly $195,000 its portion of municipal taxes on six units of social housing.
The city’s budget team, however, learned while preparing the budget, the reduction was actually $455,000, its portion of municipal taxes on the city’s entire social housing units (163 units).
The city was not informed or consulted on the elimination in funding.
“Shame on the provincial government for this,” said Coun. Buck Buchanan. “Shame on the provincial for making municipalities find it by surprise. This is absolutely ridicious and unacceptable. I am hoping our premier is listening and so is our financial minister. Hopefully our MLAs and shame on them for doing
Coun. Lawrence Lee said it is a direct download onto municipalities to cover off provincial expenses.
Taxpayers will be on the hook for .37 per cent more on a homeowner’s tax bill because the province will not pay the $455,000.
The city penned a letter to Sarah Hoffman, Minister of Seniors, in December asking for the province to re-instate the funding.