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$166-million capital plan supported by majority of New West city council

New Westminster has yet to decide what to do with millions expected from provincial surplus
Budget discussions continue, with council voting 5-2 in support of a financial plan bylaw that incorporates a $166-million capital budget in 2023.

New Westminster city council has endorsed a $166-million capital budget for 2023 – but not everyone was on board with the plan.

At a special workshop on Feb. 27, council continued a discussion about the capital budget and a funding strategy that had begun at the Feb. 13 meeting. In a 5-2 vote, council approved a recommendation directing staff to report back on the draft consolidated financial plan bylaw that incorporates a $166-million capital budget in 2023.

A staff report states the proposed capital budget is $166 million in 2023 and the proposed 2023 to 2027 capital plan is $410 million.

Budget documents outline hundreds of line items in the plan, including the new aquatic centre, the new Queensborough substation, advanced metering (smart meters), ongoing water and sewer utility works, street paving, and much more.

At the Feb. 27 workshop, council members questioned staff about various items in the capital budget, including railway noise cessation, land acquisition, bus shelters, pavement management, the Belmont Street plaza and accessibility initiatives. The Record will be following up on some of those items – more to come.

At Monday morning’s meeting, Coun. Daniel Fontaine presented council with an on-table motion related to the Growing Communities Fund.

Based on that funding, his motion was to direct staff to integrate a number of investments into the 2023-2027 capital budget including: up to $50,000 for engagement (led by Fraser River Discovery Centre) regarding possible new access points for pleasure craft moorage within the city; up to $2 million  to add one additional turf field installation into the five-year capital plan (an increase from one proposed in the plan); up to $2.5 million for “long overdue” street re-paving and sidewalk repair/enhancement projects; $85,000 for new wayfinding signage directing citizens and tourists to key public and privately-owned arts facilities/galleries; up to $25,000 to conduct a feasibility study to re-establish a recycling depot in the city by 2026.

It also proposed: up to $125,000 for the purchase and installation of new outdoor digital signage either on and/or directly adjacent to the Anvil Centre; up to $250,000 to conduct an assessment of the city’s current and future needs related to the New West Electrical Utility; up to $500,000 to install new electrical outlets in key areas of the downtown along Columbia Street, Hyack Square and River Market; and up to $50,000 for the installation of new bus shelters.

On Feb. 10, Premier David Eby announced the province would be providing a total of $1 billion in new grants (from the province’s surplus) to all local governments in B.C. to help them build community infrastructure and amenities to meet the demands of unprecedented population growth. In a press release, the province stated that funds would be distributed to B.C.’s 188 municipalities and regional districts by the end of March 2023.

Coun. Paul Minhas, the other New West Progressives candidate, was the only other council member to support Fontaine’s motion.

Coun. Tasha Henderson said the city doesn’t know how much money it will be receiving from the province or the framework for that spending. She said it’s important for the city to take a holistic look at addressing its needs and priorities, even if they aren't the most glamorous ones.

“When I'm looking at this, I see that most of this work is either underway. It's either included in or should be included in upcoming large-scale planning projects, or it's new funding,” she said of the motion. “And either way, it's important to me that we follow good process in our fiscal management and that we act responsibly, and that we make responsible choices. So I'm not prepared to support this motion today.”

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said she doesn’t think it’s a good process to introduce a spending plan without having an idea of how much money the city is receiving from the province and without knowing the requirements of that funding.

“So I would rather have a different kind of conversation around that that's more collaborative and gives more room for deep thought about things,” she said.

Saying council has a lot of work to do, Coun. Ruby Campbell called the motion, ending a discussion about the motion.

Won’t go to waste

In a 5-2 vote, council defeated Fontaine’s motion. Councillors Campbell, Henderson, Nakagawa and Jaimie McEvoy and Mayor Patrick Johnstone then supported the staff recommendation.

Fontaine said he was at a “loss for words” as he believes a workshop is the place where council members can bring forward new ideas on the capital budget and discuss those ideas, and that opportunity was “cut” short. While the province hasn’t yet stated how much money the City of New Westminster will be receiving, he said it could be around $15 million.

“At this stage, as we are nearing the end of our fiscal year, we don't have any idea at this stage where these funds are going to be expended,” he said. “But we know they’re year-end dollars, which means that they have to be spent relatively quickly.”

Harji Varn, the city’s finance director, told council that if the grant is based on population, New Westminster’s share could be upwards of $15 million.

“But it's too early to table the number and get excited,” she cautioned.

Lisa Spitale, the city’s chief administrative officer, said her experience with provincial funding has shown it may have conditions that the city is not aware of yet.

“It isn't prudent for the treasurer or myself to actually get ahead of that, until we understand what the province's expectations are,” she said. “When we understand that, our practice is to bring that to council and seek direction.”

Johnstone said it’s not clear how much the City of New Westminster will be receiving from the Growing Communities Fund because the province hasn't stated what formula it’s using to determine how much each municipality receives and what it can be spent on.

“We have a $167-million capital plan this year. There is $167-million worth of things already in our capital plan this year,” he said. “It is very likely that a number of the things and that capital plan can be allocated, can be paid through this fund – reducing the burden on our reserves, so that we can maintain our healthy reserves, reducing our deficit levels so that we aren't spending as much on debt and reducing the burden on taxpayers.”

Johnstone said there is opportunities for the city to spend that money, but he believes it's more important that the city find out the amount and council have a conversation about the priorities for that funding.

“We shouldn’t start spending the money on ideas each of us have in our heads until we have a conversation with council on setting that,” he said.