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Budget 2023: Things get heated in New West council chambers

New Westminster city council poised to approve a 6.4% property tax increase in '23
New West city council is poised to consider a 6.4 per cent property tax increase in 2023.

Emotions flared at city hall on Monday night when council considered the City of New Westminster’s 2023 to 2027 financial plan.

In a 5-2 vote, council instructed staff to convert the draft 2023 to 2026 financial plan into a bylaw that reflects a 6.4 per cent tax hike for 2023 and a $173.2-million capital budget. Mayor Patrick Johnstone and councillors Ruby Campbell, Tasha Henderson, Jaimie McEvoy and Nadine Nakagawa supported the staff recommendation, while councillors Daniel Fontaine and Paul Minhas opposed.

Looking ahead, finance director Harji Varn said staff anticipate that taxpayers will be facing property tax increases in the range of four to five per cent a year in 2024, 2025, 2026 and 2027. She said asset management plans being developed will provide the city with a clearer idea of tax increases projected for future years.

Coun. Ruby Campbell said the draft budget includes items that are important to the community such as the new aquatic and community centre, sidewalk improvements, whistle cessation at railway crossings, a new Fourth Street staircase, as well as important works such as sewer upgrades and sewer separation. She said the budget also reflects the need for staff to ensure the city is able to do the things that are being requested by residents and businesses.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said the city’s efforts to replace the aging Canada Games Pool with the new təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre is starting to have an impact on the budget. He said this year’s budget also reflects investments in items like Massey Theatre, public safety, downtown livability, and efforts to accelerate times to get city permits.

“I appreciate there are a lot of deliverables that are visible in this budget,” he said.

Coun. Daniel Fontaine, one of two New West Progressives elected to council, said “there is a lot to applaud” in the budget but the “two members in the opposition on council” have a role to focus on some of its shortcomings. He said he is “very concerned” about the 6.4 per cent tax increase.

“We have a tax conundrum,” he said. “And taxpayers are being stretched to the max this year, as they deal with soaring rents, runaway grocery bills, paycheques that simply aren't keeping up with those type of expenditures.”

At Monday’s meeting, Fontaine circulated an on-table motion for council’s consideration. It recommended that staff report back to council on the impacts to the proposed tax increase of deleting some items and adding others to the 2023 budget, before council approves first reading of the draft consolidated 2023 to 2027 financial plan bylaw.

Fontaine’s list of cuts included: eliminating $15 million for advanced metering infrastructure; eliminating $46 million for the district energy project in Sapperton; establishing a $1 budget for a city rebranding process; eliminating $509,896 for plans to transition the Queen’s Park petting farm to a new use; eliminating the $2 million expenditure for BridgeNet (a dark fibre network); and reducing the Great Streets program on Sixth Street to $2 million.

Fontaine’s motion also proposed expenditures: increasing the pedestrian crossing improvements budget to $2 million from $1.2 million; increasing the whistle cessation infrastructure investment budget to $2.5 million; increasing investments for bus shelters and bus stop improvements; allocating up to $50,000 to remove ‘end-of-life’ and non-functional structures from the former Queen’s Park petting zoo and to replace them with native tree species; and allocating up to $400,000 to enhance the Queen’s Park children’s play area to include new equipment that will encourage physical literacy and active living.

The five Community First New West council members opposed the motion.

“Take a deep breath”

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said the items in the budget have work plans and public engagement plans attached to them. She said these items could have be brought to council, finance staff and department heads earlier in the budget process.

“Members of our community care about these deeply,” she said. “I don't think it makes sense to just pull out ideas. I think that we need to do this in a coordinated way, rather than in this rather slapdash manner where this could have been emailed to council prior to this. … Instead, it's brought as a motion on the floor with little other than 'I don't like these particular projects', to motivate why these would be pulled out.”

Nakagawa said she’s happy to discuss ways of prioritizing budget items but “dropping … a laundry list” of items on councillors’ desks at this stage in the budget process isn’t the best way to move forward. She said council needs to discuss these proposals in a way that considers the nuance and impacts of those decisions.

“We can't advocate for millions of dollars in new spending, and then ask for other projects to be taken off, and then try and freeze budgets. It's just inconsistent,” she said. “I don't think it's being honest with our community. I don't think it's being transparent. And I think it's being disrespectful to our community who has spent sometimes months engaging on these projects.”

Campbell said she was “baffled” by the motion and is concerned that it sets up a “misleading” narrative because the items in the draft budget have been discussed by council, city staff and the community. When Fontaine called a point of order, she apologized for her comments.

“I think it's confusing; let's just say that. Because I feel like we have had these conversations,” she said. “And to present this at this point is challenging to me, because there was ample opportunity to have these conversations.”

Johnstone said he didn’t want to go through the “laundry list” of items in Fontaine’s motion, but singled out a couple of areas of concern. He said that removing the automated metering project from the budget is “disconnected from the reality of what the electric utility needs” as the city’s existing electrical meters need to be replaced.

Johnstone said Fontaine’s recommendation to eliminate “on a whim” the city’s investment in BridgeNet dark fibre network doesn’t consider the impact of that decision on the city’s ISP partners, on customers that are already using BridgeNet, or commitments made by the city. He also expressed concern about the proposal to slash $46 million from the district energy project.

“We don't know what that even means to the city. We don't know what it means for our partnerships. We don't know what it means to do that,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for us to make a move like that today. So I cannot support this today. I support the budget that has been proposed and worked on by this council, and has been collaboratively developed through discussions with staff.”

McEvoy said he couldn’t believe that “out-of-the-blue” proposals to cut economic development programs would be proposed at the last minute of the budget process. He said the city has worked with Fraser Health and Royal Columbian Hospital to create a health economic sector in Sapperton, part of which is based on there being a district energy system.

McEvoy said the motion proposes “on a whim” to dispense with economic development initiatives like BridgeNet.

“You want to drop some of the economic drivers that this city so badly needs? That’s just crazy,” he said.

Fontaine expressed concern that council members had referred to his motion as slapdash, kneejerk and crazy, which prompted a “point of order” from McEvoy.

“I would ask everyone to take a deep breath,” Johnstone said. “Talk about your own points, not talk about points made by others, and try to bring back a bit of respect to the discussion we're having.”

After attending months of onboarding sessions, Fontaine said he thought Monday’s meeting was his opportunity as an elected official to make a recommendation on ways the city could limit its costs. He said he’s raised concerns about the items in his motion during previous budget discussions and said he and Minhas should not be “attacked” for bringing these things forward.

“I'm encouraging council to read the motion very carefully,” he said. “It doesn't say anything other than staff to come back with their 6.4 per cent and to quantify what would happen if we were to implement these measures; what impact would that have on our tax bill?”

Capital budget

The $173.2-milion capital budget for 2023 is part of a $410.6-millon five-year capital plan which includes funds for a wide range of projects and initiatives. This includes $267.9 million for infrastructure and core services, such as: təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre; sewer and water infrastructure ($86.2 million); Massey Theatre ($13.5 million); parks improvements ($20.3 million); and automated meters for the electric utility ($15.3 million). It also includes $100.9 million for environment, climate and sustainable transportation; $25.3 million for organizational effectiveness; and $12.9 million for affordable housing and child care.

Some of the big-tickets items in this year’s capital budget are: $42.8 million for təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre; $13.8 million for automated meters; $12.3 million for West End sewer separation and water mains; and $9.6 million for the Queensborough substation/distribution grid.

Other initiatives being funded from the 2023 capital budget include Westminster Pier Park expansion — $2.1 million; the Fourth Street feature stairway to be built between Columbia and Front streets — $1.4 million; affordable housing projects — $1.4 million, urban reforestation biodiversity — $1.3 million; rail crossing upgrades — $0.9 million; Q to Q ferry — $1.3 million and a freestanding public washroom for the downtown — $0.6 million.

Operating budget

The City of New Westminster is proposing a $301.5-million operating budget for 2023, of which 34.9 per cent ($104 million) will come from property tax levies; 36.7 per cent will come from electrical, water, sewer and solid waste fees; 15.8 per cent will come from grants and contributions; and 12.7 per cent will come from carbon credits, parking, permits etc.

In New Westminster, the police department accounts for 24 per cent of the city’s staffing costs, followed by: engineering — 20 per cent; general government — 19 per cent; parks and recreation —16 per cent; fire and rescue — 13 per cent; development services — five per cent; and library — three per cent.

In addition to staffing costs, some “passed down” costs are also impacting the city’s fixed costs. This includes $1.25 million (the equivalent of a 1.3 per cent tax increase) for WorkSafeBC premiums and $0.95 million (or a one per cent increase) for increases to E-Comm and justice Institute of B.C.

Debt servicing related to təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre also accounts for $1 million, or a one per cent tax increase.

Varn outlined a series of permanent service enhancements proposed in 2023 that would cost $2.48 million (or a 2.5 per cent tax increase). These include investments in downtown livability, human resources, IT, and staffing positions in a number of departments. Other “one-time” service enhancements totalling $1.19 million are also proposed.