White Rock Mayor Darryl Walker said he’s in favour of a tax increase for the city – even though some other council members have said they favour a zero increase or even a decrease in taxes for 2020.
“If we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backward,” Walker said. “We can’t say no to everything – or we really don’t have anything.”
Walker’s comments came at the end of a Tuesday night session of council – meeting as the Finance and Audit committee – chaired by Coun. Erika Johanson.
It was only a first step in extended budget deliberations that will involve public meetings on Feb. 10 and April 27, before an amended 2020 to 2024 financial plan bylaw is finally adopted in early May.
But philosophical differences were already coming to the fore as council members wrestled with the city’s draft financial plan – and particularly a wish list of unfunded items for 2020 – during which they were reminded frequently by Coun. Christopher Trevelyan that each item could represent a percentage increase in next year’s taxes.
That’s above and beyond a 3.9 per cent property tax increase staff say is already necessitated by increased costs and potential revenue shortfalls.
As laid out in a report on the draft financial plan by financial services director Sandra Kurylo, a 3.9 per cent increase would have an impact of an additional $130 on the tax bill of an average detached single family home, or a $49 increase for an average strata property in the city.
“That’s not a lot of money,” Coun. Helen Fathers said.
But Coun. Anthony Manning noted “$130 for some of our residents is quite a stretch.”
At the heart of the preliminary discussion was the balance between what council wants to achieve in terms of operational transparency – and boosting visitor and resident appeal through increased events in the city – and what members believe taxpayers can afford.
Council members gave endorsement in principle, through majority votes, to a series of unfunded items, while acknowledging that savings must be pursued in other budget areas to reduce a potential tax increase.
Items endorsed included adding a purchasing officer staff position; additional hours for bylaw enforcement staff; and converting a temporary full-time committee clerk position to regular full time (chief administrative officer Dan Bottrill noted that, in its first year, the current council has doubled the number of city committees, and doubled the frequency with which they meet).
They also voted in favour of hiring a special events assistant for eight months in the year (recreation and culture director Eric Stepura said the number of events organized by the city has increased significantly, leading the city’s special events co-ordinator to book more than 100 hours in overtime this year), and also backed an increase to the operations budget to support the level of special events planned for 2020.
In addition, council also voted in favour of increased park maintenance of hillside walkways, more money for perennial and annual plants throughout the city, and funding a new full-time regular ‘trades’ gardener; as well as earmarking $5,000 to maintain the same fee for service for the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce and an increase to the White Rock Museum and Archives grant of $25,000.
Budget discussions also led to comparisons with other municipalities.
Walker said that conversations he has had with Village of Belcarra Mayor Neil Belenkie suggest that years of zero-tax-increase budgeting have not served that community well.
“They’re dead broke – they have nothing to do anything with,” he said, arguing that some additional expenditures are always going to be necessary for the ultimate health of the city.
“It’s like not putting a roof on your building or oil in your car,” Walker said. “We want (the community) to move forward.”
Coun. Scott Kristjanson, who said he would prefer a decrease in property taxes, said he favoured the approach taken by the City of Port Coquitlam, which he held up as a model of budgeting.
But Bottrill said it might be hard to match current budget items closely with previously determined council strategic priorities.
Walker said he thought that rather than budgeting on “what we ran on,” council’s obligation was to respond to the needs of people in the community as they emerge.
A majority of the committee also passed a motion from Trevelyan that asked staff to investigate other potential savings in the budget to find funding for the items it had endorsed at the meeting. Further discussion of the city’s draft financial plan by the Finance and Audit committee was scheduled for Thursday.