Squamish council this week began the process of whittling away at a projected 12 per cent property tax increase in the 2013 municipal budget.
Local lawmakers on Monday (March 4) voted unanimously to ask District of Squamish staff to use a pair of contingency funds set aside last year to help the district deal with projected increases in RCMP and labour costs to soften the landing for taxpayers in 2013 by 3.3 per cent, reducing the overall projected hike from 12.1 to 8.9 per cent.
If adopted as part of the final budget, use of the $900,000 set aside as an RCMP cost increase contingency is to be phased in over a four-year period, with $500,000 of that used in 2013.
The $222,260 set aside as a labour cost increase contingency — meant to help the district deal with increases expected when new contracts (currently in negotiations) are signed with the district's two municipal employees' unions — is to be phased in over two years, 2013 and 2014.
Though no further budgetary changes were endorsed on Monday, there were indications from some lawmakers that further adjustments meant to reduce this year's tax increase might be in the offing.
Coun. Ron Sander, who made the motion to enact the RCMP and labour cost changes, said that while he understood the desire to maintain core services and set aside money to help pay for much-needed infrastructure work, he thought 12 per cent was just too much for taxpayers to absorb at once.
Joanne Greenlees, the district's manager of finance, provided an hour-long presentation explaining both the fixed costs of maintaining services and the need to set aside cash for upgrades to water and sewer infrastructure over the next several years. “I think we'd be doing the community a disservice if we… continued to put that off,” she said.
Sander prefaced his comments by saying, “thanks for the lecture.” He added, “We need to be responsible and I think we have been pretty responsible. I don't think I've heard anyone backpedalling on the initiative to increase our reserves through taxation.
“We also, though, have to keep in mind people's household budgets, as there comes a point where the size of the increase is not sustainable on that end,” Sander added.
Sander voiced some confusion over DOS staff's definition of “core services,” saying he would like to see staffing levels reviewed as part of the budget and, perhaps, some new positions being created to help deal with the community's “evolving” needs trimmed.
Coun. Doug Race said he also wanted to find ways to soften the blow, but added that he didn’t think benchmarking taxation to the overall Consumer Price Index (CPI) change was a good idea, either.
“We have to realize, I think, that we’re playing a significant game of catch-up with our infrastructure and I think it’s dangerous to start comparing it to cost-of-living increases,” Race said.
Corien Speaker, DOS chief administrative officer, said it would take time to prepare such an analysis but that it could be done if council wished. No motions to that effect were made at Monday's meeting.
Said Speaker, “There has been significant analysis of our core services over the last couple of years. To have council go back on some of that and make arbitrary changes to core services, it's going to defeat the purpose of some of those initiatives. I see that as something like a knee-jerk reaction that would undo some of the work that's been done.”
Council's budget deliberations resume on Tuesday (March 12) from 6 to 9 p.m. For information related to the budget, including a comments form, please visit www.squamish.ca