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New West hears of need for 5.4 to 6.4 per cent property tax hike

New Westminster staff say many municipalities considering tax increase in five to seven per cent in 2023
City services, such as Anvil Centre, are part of 2023 budget discussions.

The City of New Westminster is contemplating a potential tax hike of 5.4 or 6.4 per cent tax  in 2023.

During a three-hour workshop on Jan. 30, council got its first look at the 2023 operating budget and was able to provide direction to staff.

“This is a workshop today,” said finance director Harji Varn. “It is not a fully baked-out budget, and we’re here and open to whatever direction you’d like to take.”

“Budget Outlook 1” includes a rollover of costs associated with the 2022 budget, increased 2023 increases related to WorkSafeBC costs, fees for E-Comm services, and police training services at the Justice Institute of BC, and well as a series enhancements related to downtown livability, human resources and information technology. It comes out at 5.4 per cent.

“Budget Outlook 2” – which calls for a 6.4 per cent increase – includes  items in Outlook 1, as well a one per cent increase associated with other  proposed permanent increases, including investments in engineering supplies and material, a revenue adjustment related to the Q to Q ferry, consultants studies and some staffing positions.

According to Varn, 80 to 90 per cent of municipalities are saying they’ll have tax increases in the range of five to seven per cent in 2023.

“I really want to thank staff. I think this is a very difficult budget here,” said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa. “I think staff have done an exceptional job in presenting the best budget possible to us.”

During the workshop, council members posed questions and provided comments on a number of budget items proposed by various departments, including library, engineering, Anvil Centre, economic development, police and fire.

Asked about public engagement, staff said no survey of residents will be done this year, as it wasn’t possible because of the timing of council’s consideration of the budget – which occurred after the new council was sworn into office in November. The city will be amalgamating all of the budget documents on one page on its website to make it accessible for community members.

While he applauded the work done by staff on the budget, Coun. Daniel Fontaine said he’d also like to have seen recommendations on where the city could find efficiencies in the budget. He said citizens are facing unprecedented levels of inflation.

“I think they expect us to do our best to keep taxes in check,” he said.

Fontaine said the City of Burnaby is looking at a 3.99 per cent property tax increase this year.

Coun. Paul Minhas, who along with Fontaine was one of two New West Progressives elected to city council in October, said the city needs to find “different ways to strategize” to mitigate some of the community’s concerns about spending.

Community First council members responded by saying councillors can recommend specific efficiencies they’d like to see in the budget.

“If we’re talking cutbacks, let’s call it what it is if that’s what being proposed, because plain language and speaking openly to the public is important,” said Coun. Jaimie McEvoy about finding “efficiencies.”

Nakagawa said it’s not reasonable to have staff look at the entire organization and try to find things to cut.

“I think that implies that staff aren't doing that work. And it also is unreasonable, because this is a massive organization,” she said. “So, I think that if we want cuts presented, we need ... to give some level of direction of what that would entail. We don't have to be specific, but I think we have to say you know, parks and rec services, library services; what are what are we talking about here?”

Nakagawa said council members also have to be consistent if they’re talking about making cuts to the budget, while also bringing forward “massive infrastructure motions” that would add to the city’s operating and capital costs.

“We cannot have it both ways,” she said. “We cannot ask for more services and for more infrastructure and then ask for cutbacks in budget and corresponding tax increase. That's a fallacy that is dishonest to our community.”

Coun. Ruby Campbell suggested items were removed from the budget before it was even presented to staff.

“I can only imagine what was left out of this and what impacts that may mean for staff in terms of what they're still probably going to do and just figure out how to do it, even though it hasn't been included in the budget,” she said. “And so, for me, that never gets calculated. It never gets measured and it never gets thanked and never gets recognized.”

Motion rejected

Fontaine put forward a motion that staff present an alternate operating budget to council that represents a 3.95 per cent property tax increase, and that the 3.95 per cent operating budget identify program and operational efficiencies as well as opportunities to defer non-urgent spending to future years.

Fontaine’s motion also recommended that staff prioritize non-core functions when identifying areas for savings, efficiencies and deferred spending. It also recommended that staff utilize the city’s general reserve and budget surplus from 2022 to reduce the this year’s potential tax increase.

McEvoy said he’s not prepared to make a decision about using reserves at this point in the budget process, saying council hasn’t even decided whether it will be approving the increases recommended by staff.

“I do actually support some conservative principles of financial management, and one is, you don't just raid your reserves for your ongoing expenses – you plan for your ongoing expenses with revenue,” he said. “It's not sustainable to do that.”

Nakagawa said that council has heard repeatedly about the long-term importance of building up its reserves. While she understands that people are struggling in a lot of ways, she said the city to find ways to be economically resilient and to set itself up for its massive infrastructure challenges.

“While it would be nice to support lower numbers in this tax increase… this is a fantasy in my in my view,” she said. “I will not consider not respecting contracts that have been made. I will not consider running ourselves into the ground to come up with something.”

Coun. Tasha Henderson said Burnaby isn’t a good comparison, as its three times the size of New Westminster. She said Nanaimo is considering a seven per cent tax increase and Saanich is looking at close to an eight per cent increase.

“It’s a hard time, and cities are having to make some really tough decisions,” she said.

Henderson noted that the desire for “more” and request for more reports from staff has occurred at every council meeting since the election.

“That message is really inconsistent for me,” she said. “We can’t ask staff to produce seven staff reports out of each meeting and also tell them they have to be more efficient. … I am just kind of baffled at the direction this conversation has gone.”

Campbell said she struggled with the motion, saying it feels like an exercise in “who cares for the community the most.”

“We are coming from a situation where we want to care for all members of our community,” she said. “We want to care for members who are homeowners, we want to care for members who are unhoused and everywhere in between.”

Fontaine said his motion was about providing direction to staff, which he said is council’s role.

“This is the first opportunity that I've had to sit down in a room with staff and with my colleagues, besides the onboarding material to provide direction to staff in a formal way,” he said.

In a 5-2 vote, council voted against Fontaine’s motion.

Following the conversation, chief administrative officer Lisa Spitale said staff would be reporting back on various questions and comments raised by council during the three-hour workshop.

More to come on the budget, including reductions to the police department’s budget that was originally discussed with council in November.