By Peter Worden, Special to the Review
How much are you, the taxpayer, willing to spend to drive on decent roads?
That was essentially the question that dominated last Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the third such one, from which members will finalize a budget and layout a five-year financial plan for local infrastructure upgrades.
Up for debate were items not currently in the base budget, such as basic road repair, curb and sidewalk replacement and a host of smaller items in the Public Works and Parks, Recreation & Culture departments.
Adding any of these would involve removing something else in the budget—or increasing taxes. So, if council chooses to add one, the talk turns to where the money will come from.
“For what it’s worth, from a philosophical point of view, I think we’re at a crossroads with infrastructure,” said councillor Connie Brothers, speaking to the largest item up for debate: $900,000 for pavement replacement. The dilemma, essentially: pay that amount now or put it off only to pay more later.
As Mike Thomas, director of Engineering & Development Services, put it, the cost of everything is increasing. The price of gas is up 20 per cent on average in B.C. and the annual estimated cost to repair roads increases on average $100,000 each year.
“We’ve got a system that if we don’t fund something quickly it will cost us more in the long-run,” he said, adding this doesn’t address the worst roads; it’s an estimate for average road condition. “If you’re happy for the roads to deteriorate, spend less.”
Talk of city spending ‘now-versus-later’ spun into the larger discussion on the purpose of council and the nature of taxation.
“It’s balancing what is reasonable and what is not to the taxpayer,” said Mayor Mark McKee.
“That’s the bones of why we sit at this table. It’s what we were voted in for,” said coun. Linda Nixon. “I think we need to have a very clear view of where we go seven or 10 years from here with those types of infrastructure… This is something we have to do as a community or we’re putting ourselves in financial peril long-term.”
Several suggestions were put forward as to where to drum up money to pay for long-term infrastructure, including a tax increase or a levy.
“You can call it a levy, you can call it a tax increase, it’s still going to be ‘what’s the bottom-line,'” said McKee. “If we’re talking $900,000 dollars, rough and dirty, that’s a seven per cent increase in taxes.”
That led to the idea of a flat tax — a system where homeowners all pay the same amount regardless of their property’s value.
“I think there is a some merit to council discussing a flat tax,” said Chief Administrative Officer Allan Chabot.
However, coun. Aaron Orlando warned that in lieu of a proper communication plan, talk of a flat tax could “blow up … and it’s all gone down the drain.”
“My feeling is that this will require a lot of communication with the public,” he said. “If our long-term goal is to improve the state of the roads… I think we need to put this out for meaningful consultation with the public.”
The Committee of the Whole continued through other items one-by-one. Councillor Nixon noted, “none of these things are weighted.”
She suggested department directors list their top three items. For Laurie Donato, director of the department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, one top item was $15,000 in electrical upgrades for Kovach Park, needed to complete the new skateboard park.
“This is the final piece to put this together and get this project going,” said McKee, supporting it. “This decision right here is really going to decide if this project goes ahead.”
The committee also approved $30,000 in money for curb and sidewalk replacement, which is currently upgraded on a basic of what McKee called, “crisis management.”
“I don’t think this budget is ready to go out to the public yet,” said Nixon, seconding a motion for staff to come back with report on the feasibility of a flat tax.
Also to be determined is whether or not to fund $150,000 to re-locate the sani-dump to a new, but less convenient, location on Powerhouse Road.
“I can hardly wait to have another conversation on sani-dumps,” joked McKee.
The next budget meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Mar. 21, at 2 p.m.