The Ides of March are here and our municipal councillors are deep into their annual budget deliberation ritual. As is customary, we have received a renewed confirmation that the Shining Valley is in a fiscal pickle. The answer to our near-apocalyptic monetary challenge, we are told, is a substantial tax increase.
But there may be other options. One source of revenue to defray budget costs and avoid robust tax hikes is the sale of municipal real estate. The DOS currently has a portfolio of commercial properties, some of which have been sold in the Business Park, and estimates total sales will be approximately $20 million over a 20-year period. As well, the Oceanfront lands are also in the mix. According to a recent press release, the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corp. “has received multiple responses from local, regional and international companies.”
Despite that potentially lucrative marketing activity, the DOS Long Term Financial Plan (LTFP) states that “land development and speculating are not part of the District’s core business… It is a best practice for the District to move away from purchasing or holding land for development and speculating.”
Another standard budgetary strategy has been the bank financing route. In B.C. up to 25 per cent of total allowable municipal revenues can be used to service debt. According to the LTFP, paying down the Oceanfront development loans has pushed the municipality to more than double the provincial debt service average and “if restructuring of the SODC financing does not take place, current conditions dictate that the District is expected to be out of borrowing capacity by 2014.”
The ideal option is to broaden the residential and commercial tax base. But growth in those areas has not been vigorous enough to make a big difference. This past February, local realtors sold five detached homes. Last year 14 changed hands during the same period. Townhouse and condo sales fared no better. This February, two townhouses and two condos were sold. Last year more than a dozen townhouse and condo units combined found buyers. The commercial rental marketplace has seen a similar downturn. At the moment there are 15 vacant properties available for lease on Second Avenue alone.
So it would appear that the above-mentioned efforts at generating revenue are sketchy. Besides pursuing hidden efficiencies, should council entertain more drastic measures, including municipal staff and service reductions, as an alternative to raising taxes? In her own version of Julius Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” expression of shock and betrayal, Corien Speaker, the district’s CAO, recently informed us that “there has been significant analysis of our core services over the last couple of years” and cuts will be akin to “a knee-jerk reaction that would undo some of the work that’s been done.” Well, folks, it may be time to start jerking some knees.