Revelstoke city council has decided on a four per cent hike in residential taxes for 2011, but will hold the line for commercial and industrial taxpayers at zero per cent.
The decision came at their Feb. 22 regular meeting, following presentations from citizens concerned about cuts to recreation services and from a budget focus group consisting of residential and business representatives.
The four per cent increase means the owner of an average-valued $350,000 home will pay an extra $45 dollars in city taxes.
The new tax rates equal a 1.7 per cent overall tax increase for the city. The high ratio between business taxes and residential taxes was a major complaint from the commercial sector. The new plan will reduce that ratio from 5.86:1 in 2010 to 5:22:1 in 2011.
Council decided on the final budget after some last-minute changes.
They reinstated funding cuts that targeted city recreation facilities and programs including ones at the Revelstoke Aquatic Centre and the Revelstoke Forum.
Council also reinstated funding to cuts to the public works maintenance budget, although the exact dollar value was not available.
Council also revised the snow removal budget, beefing it up to $908,000 for the year.
They ruled out a similar budget with a 3.5 per cent residential increase and then passed the budget proposal in a split vote.
Councillors presented their views on the ‘four-per-cent’ plan just before the vote.
Coun. Antoinette Halberstadt said she supported the reinstatements of reductions to the recreation and public works budgets included in the final draft. “We’re also talking about intangible things that are about the heart of our community, they’re about the things that hold people together, the things that keep people healthy, the things that help people not be drug addicts, the things that benefit the whole of our community including our business community and our residential community,” she said.
Coun. Chris Johnston voted against the plan, saying he saw tax rates consistently increasing above the rate of inflation with no corresponding improvements in services. “I just don’t think there’s any justification for a tax increase,” he said. “[The budget’s] still too fat.” He also said holding the line at zero per cent for commercial and industrial properties doesn’t significantly address those groups’ tax issues.
Coun. Tony Scarcella was the other dissenting vote. He presented several alternatives through the budget process, but they didn’t get any traction at the table and a few of his motions were defeated at earlier meetings. He said a roughly $50 annual increase on an average residence was nevertheless another increase. “I don’t care if it is $50. You are taking $50 dollars away from the kids,” Scarcella said. The reason behind the increase was simple: “Because we spend too much, that’s why. There is no control in spending,” Scarcella said.
Coun. Steve Bender said funding infrastructure maintenance necessitated the increase. Bender said there was “oodles of proof” that funding infrastructure maintenance would pay off down the road, and “to put them back in, it’s going to require a slight increase,” he said. Bender said he would “hold (his) nose and vote on the four per cent for residential.”
Coun. Peter Frew said the increase to cover recreation costs equalled about $6 dollars for an average household. “I think that’s palatable,” Frew said.
Coun. Phil Welock said he supported the plan, saying it addressed issues presented by business and recreation programs for children. “We are doing things smartly I believe.” Welock added that finding ways to generate more revenue would be key moving forward. “I think the communication element is key in this budget,” Welock said of the upcoming 30-day public review and comment period.
Mayor David Raven expressed mixed feelings about the budget, noting “angst” over the process this year. “It’s not nice but it is realistic and it maintains the lifestyle and the infrastructure that the community has become accustomed to,” Raven said of the plan. The downsides, he said, were that it didn’t do anything to address the tax burden on Downie Timber Ltd. this year, and that it shifted new burden onto residential taxpayers. The mayor only votes to break a tie.
Recreation user input
Council received comments and letters on proposed recreation budget cuts from several groups, including letters from the Revelstoke Skating Club, the Revelstoke Youth Soccer Association, the Revelstoke Aquaducks, the Revelstoke Minor Lacrosse Association and Revelstoke Minor Hockey. The letters emphasized the importance of the programs for youth and opposed cuts that would affect their programs and facilities.
Resident Sonia Cinelli collected a petition against recreation cuts and also chaired a Feb. 21 meeting to gather suggestions and input on the budget.
She said those attending the meeting suggested amending pool pass subsidies for hotels and revising the discount pass system for some. She emphasized the need to maintain services for children and youth. “I ask respectfully you consider all that has been put forth,” Cinelli said. “I am absolutely against any cuts to our parks and recreation program.”
Revelstoke Aquaducks president Cam Molder also spoke. “There’s really no logical place to consistently cut pool hours,” Molder said, noting that disabled residents or those undergoing physiotherapy may gravitate to quieter pool times.
Budget focus group input
New this year was a budget focus group consisting of three residential and three business taxpayers. They were: Bart Larson, Bob Melnyk, Dale Morehouse, Brydon Roe, Betty Sloan and Arvid Zakary.
Their three-page presentation contained numerous suggestions, many of them directed at future budget processes.
They focused on affordability, equity, value and accountability.
The felt the budget should be purpose-driven, focusing on value. “We had hoped to see a clearer matching of service deliverables with costs and benefits and the relationship to goals and objectives,” they write.
They felt proposing percentage cuts across all departments wasn’t a targeted way of seeking efficiencies.
They also suggested a value audit, “to compare the levels of service we have with other similar-sized communities,” they write. Council responded to this request at the meeting, asking staff to prepare a report on the idea. Council has explored the idea in recent months.
The focus group also zeroed in on accountability, asking, “whether there are adequate processes in place to promote appropriate accountability and efficiency.
“Do investments require business cases? Who is the proponent, how are they challenged [and] what are the whole financial implications?”
Their report suggested creating a citizen budget oversight committee. Some councillors seemed keen on the idea.
The focus group also recommended reducing the tax burden on commercial properties, and focusing on fairness in taxation and affordability between taxation classes.
In addition to the above over-arching advice, the group made specific suggestions. They included:
– Comparing fire protection services to similar-sized communities
– Putting a moratorium on new or enhanced programs and spending
– Reconsidering curb-side recycling
– Rethinking city involvement in affordable housing initiatives
– Reducing tax leakage from illegal rentals in Revelstoke
– Rethinking funding bear-proof garbage cans and considering a user-pay model
– Reconsidering funding transit expansion
– Maintaining infrastructure maintenance to avoid surprises down the road
There were several more suggestions.
Focus group members also answered questions from councillors.
Betty Sloan said the budget process focused too much on the numbers and wasn’t driven by matching value with dollars. “We’re not sure that the exercise provided the result that people are intending,” she said of the group’s experience. “That’s what we struggled with.”
Bob Melnyk said the budget documents lacked reference points, historical information or consistent budget increases that correlated to indexes like inflation. He said the RCMP portion of the budget did, but increases in other city departments were erratic: “There’s just absolutely no comparison in terms of percentage increases,” Melnyk said.
Bart Larson said council’s request for percentage-based decreases across departments wasn’t a targeted approach. Many of the resulting cuts were capital items, he said. “There’s no real hard look,” Larson said, adding council needed to ask, “‘Where could we potentially reduce the level of services in a minimal impact way?'”
The budget now moves to a 30-day public comment period. The budget proposed by council will be advertised and community members can provide written comment. Councillors encouraged community members to submit formal written comments. Because it is a formal process, those who have already provided comment are advised to provide new, written comment on the now-completed draft to ensure the comment is considered.