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New Westminster city council unanimously supports 2021 budget

4.9% property tax increase and a $183.3-million capital budget approved for 2021
After some back-and-forth with the New Westminster police board, council has approved a five-year financial plan - which includes a budget increase in 2021 for the NWPD.

New Westminster city council has approved its 2021 budget – and is poised to start the process all over again within a few months.

On Feb. 22, council approved the 2021 to 2025 financial plan bylaw, which incorporates a 4.9% property tax increase and a $183.3-million capital budget for 2021. No members of the public attended the virtual meeting to speak to the budget.

Mayor Jonathan Cote acknowledged staff’s efforts to engage with the public during the 2021 budget process. He said about 1,000 people participated in the engagement process.

“I think getting that feedback earlier in September was really helpful to help council work through the budget, as opposed to the feedback on the final night before the budget approval,” he said. “I really appreciate all the residents who took the time to participate.”

It’s been a “challenging” budget year, Cote said, and the city is still faced with impacts of COVID-19.

“Our revenue sources are still not back to normal. There is still uncertainty,” he said. “We have had to do our best to balance through those challenges, while at the same time getting back on track with a lot of the important work we are doing with the city.”

Cote hopes the city is nearing the point where it can get started on construction of the Canada Games Pool replacement project.

“I think the tax rate that we are at is a little bit higher than where we have traditionally been over the past number of years,” he said. “There are a few big drivers, the big one being getting the Canada Games Pool project back on track.”

Cote supports staff’s effort to get the budget approved earlier than in past years and believes it will lead to better results down the road. He said the city will be starting work on the 2022 budget within a few months.

Coun. Mary Trentadue said she’s pleased to see the budget being adopted in February.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I look forward to the process starting all over again,” she said. “I think people know how I feel about the police budget; I look forward to doing that work in the future.”

The finance department aimed to have the 2021 to 2025 financial plan adopted by the end of December, as that’s considered a best practice. When considering the draft budget in December some councillors voiced concerns about a proposed increase for the New Westminster Police Department (related to wages, diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives, personal protective equipment and nalxone), and council voted four to three in favour of asking the police board to bring back a budget with a 0% increase for 2021.

After the police board refused to submit a budget with no increase for the NWPD, council voted five to two in favour of forwarding the financial plan bylaw to council for its consideration. In response to calls from across North America for police reform, councillors Nadine Nakagawa and Mary Trentadue voted against that motion on Feb. 1.

Trentadue and Nakagawa, however, supported the financial plan when it was adopted by council Monday night.

“I supported it moving forward.  I just felt like I need to support this process,” Trentadue later told the Record. “I don’t specifically support the police budget.”

Trentadue said concerns about the police budget and police reform will be discussed during the next budget process and during discussions between the police board and council.

“I want us to start having that conversation now,” she said.

What’s in the budget?

According to a staff report, the proposed 4.9% property tax increase includes 2.3% to support fixed cost increases for all city services, 2.0% for debt financing related to the Canada Games Pool replacement project and 0.6% for service enhancements.

The report states the estimated dollar increase to average residential and business properties is: $65 on a strata unit; $251 on a single-family home assessed at $1.2 million; $112 on a single-family home assessed at $2 million; $383 on a business assessed at $2.8 million; and $3,402 on light industry assessed at $5.2 million.

In November, council approved rate increases for the city’s four utilities: sewer (7%); water (7%); solid waste (12%); and electrical (3.8%, which includes a climate levy).

“For 2022 to 2025, finance has utilized the reserves and some borrowing to smooth or stabilize the rates for the next five years,” Varn told council Feb. 1. “So overall, our budget outlook is estimating a property tax rate increase of approximately 4% to 5% per year, a sewer and water rate increase of approximately 7% per year, solid waste rate increases of approximately 10% per year and an electrical rate increase at 2.8% per year.”

Varn said the city’s $470.8-million five-year capital plan includes a variety of initiatives related to: infrastructure and core services ($331 million); environment, climate and sustainable transportation ($106.5 million); organizational effectiveness ($20 million); affordable housing ($9.3 million); and culture, economy and reconciliation ($3.5 million.)

This year’s $180.3-million capital budget includes a combination of projects that were deferred in 2020 because of COVID and city projects already planned for 2021. The city is forecasting to spend this money over two years, with $116.2 million projected to be spent in 2021 and $67.1 million to carry over into 2022.

While a wide range of projects are included in this year’s capital budget, three of them are multi-year projects totalling $111.3 million: $84 million for the New West Aquatic Centre/Canada Games Pool replacement project; $17.5 million for the Queensborough substation/electrical grid project; and $9.8 million for automated electrical meters.


Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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