Update: Council balks at 5% budget hike, puts 3.5% plan to public comment

Focus group, council highlight need for look at long-term sustainability of city spending, services. Update with new link to revised budget

  • Feb. 19, 2013 8:00 a.m.

Update Feb. 20, 2013: The revised budget document was posted on the City of Revelstoke website on Feb. 20. Follow this link to read it.

Original story posted Feb. 19, 2013:

Revelstoke city council balked at a five-per property tax increase, instead opting to put a 3.5 per cent increase scenario in front the taxpayers for a budget comment period.

The finance committee was working on a general two per cent increase, and a special one-time increase of three per cent to build city reserves. The scenario adopted for public review halved the reserve allocation to 1.5 per cent.

The change came at a Feb. 18 special council meeting to review the 2013–2017 financial plan.

A motion to put the five-per cent scenario received no support at the table, as almost all councillors took pot shots at the budget as it stood.

Coun. Tony Scarcella said the process hadn’t focused enough on finding efficiencies, and that he didn’t support the reserve allocation. “Businesses and taxpayers, they can’t afford this.”

Coun. Chris Johnston said the process lacked long-term vision. “I don’t see the path that we’re on as being sustainable,” Johnston said. “[Taxation] is not an endless pool of money that we’re dealing with. We have to address it through rationalization of services. Some people are going to have to do without some services. That’s just the way it goes. You can’t keep adding on and adding on.”

Johnston said he’d been through a decade of city budget meetings and hadn’t seen adequate efforts to sharpen pencils. “The solution is always not to find efficiencies, not to reduce services, not even to try to reduce services or identify services to be reduced, it’s just, ‘It’s only two per cent,” … and now ‘It’s only five per cent,’ and I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

Coun. Linda Nixon echoed the need to connect long-term vision with the budget process. “We do need to take a couple steps back from the whole picture and look at sustainability, and look at maybe not adding new programs or not adding new positions when we’re not in a boom time.”

Coun. Steve Bender, who is chair of the finance committee, said cutting tax rates meant cutting services. “We all know what that means. That means when taxes are raised we get half a dozen official comments about them being too high. You cut a service and you have almost an armed revolt on your hand with ten times the amount of response — in these times and in that particular case I’m willing to take that heat.”

Coun. Phil Welock said services needed to be maintained, but he didn’t support the big tax bite. “I know that we need to fix our sewer and water, we need to maintain our policing, we need to maintain our fire protection,” he said. “I would like to move the five-year financial plan forward, but I’m certainly not in favour of a five-per cent tax increase at this time.”

The city’s budget focus group, a collection of citizens who are working parallel with council to provide input, were scheduled to provide their report at the meeting.

However, spokesperson Betty Sloan said they hadn’t been able to distill the report in time for the meeting.

Sloan did provide some comments.

“The proposed one-time tax increase, we’re not really comfortable with that — the three per cent.”

“There’s really a longer term bigger issue here that isn’t getting addressed after this process,” Sloan said. “We feel more that what’s needed is a long-term strategic financial strategy that’s focused at sustainability.”

While city finance director Graham Inglis fired up the overhead projector to show council the effects of the tweaked numbers on the spreadsheet, mayor David Raven filled the few moments with a reflective soliloquy on the budget process:

 

I’ve listened to this debate for five years. And as I look at the previous mayors up on the [wall] there’s a whole issue of legacies, and what legacy you will leave when you step away from this office. There’s not going to be a large building or anything other than sound financial management at the end of the day. The issue in Revelstoke is that we’ve been spoiled, frankly, over the years. And if you look at what each one of these mayors have contributed over these years, we’ve come to rely on a level of service from the municipal government that may not be sustainable in the context of the world that we live in. And that world requires that everybody pays their taxes, that everybody treats each other in a fair and equitable manner, and that at the end of the day we make decisions based on sound business practices and sound financial practices, rather than picking the colour of the day. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of work to get into this. Unfortunately at this point in time our reserves are run down, and we do have an infrastructure deficit, and we’ve got a tremendous number of services that people are expecting us to deliver. We can cut those services. We’ve got the intestinal fortitude to do that. But council has to have the strength and the community has to have the strength to not have that level of service that we currently have. We tend to get ourselves in positions where we’ll end up with a lawsuit that costs us a lot of money, we’ll end up fighting over something that is minuscule — and signs is an [example] we spend more money chasing people around on signs. What do you want? What does the community want? And I struggle with that really. Because I can find the efficiencies, and it’s not decimating the city staff — that’s not going to solve the problems. It’s learning to deal with less service. It’s less snow removal. It’s less efficiencies … It’s less service. It’s saying no to developers who want you to service them. It’s saying no to a whole bunch of stuff. … The input I’m looking for is tell us what you don’t want. What do you take off the table?

Coun. Chris Johnston said the public feedback system was flawed, noting only a handful of people provide feedback on the process every year — and that council shouldn’t interpret a lack of public input as validation of successive tax-increase budgets. “That’s not the way we find out what we do. This table should should take a hard look at what we do. Maybe it’s because they’re like frogs in a kettle of water that’s getting hotter and hotter and they just sit there until finally it boils.”

In response to questions from the Times Review, city CAO Tim Palmer said efficiencies had been created through the budget process, but that it wasn’t possible to put a dollar value on that because they were hard to quantify and offset by new costs.

The final numbers were not immediately available as it will require adjustment to reflect the new 3.5 per cent target. At the Feb. 18 meeting, council also discussed integrating $50,000 needed to fix deficiencies at the Revelstoke Golf Club into the budget, which will also need to be factored in.

 

 

 

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