Longtime New Westminster residents Christopher Bell and Bill Zander had some company in council chambers Monday night.
Bell, a Moody Park resident, and Zander, who lives in the West End, are often the only residents who appear before council during the annual opportunity to be heard about the budget. However, several other residents attended the March 11 council meeting and expressed concerns about this year’s proposed 5.28-per-cent property tax increase, which includes a .5-per-cent capital levy to help pay for the future Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre redevelopment project.
“I would say the city has failed in all aspects to comply with the Community Charter’s demands for process and public consultation,” Bell said. “I would say the public process of this financial plan has been a catastrophe.”
Bell said there’s been an “absolute lack” of public engagement in the development of the financial plan, and he asked the city to extend the process by a month.
Following a staff and council had a workshop about the budget on Feb. 28, the city released a staff report on the financial plan on Tuesday, March 5 and accepted feedback until Friday, March 8. Colleen Ponzini, the city’s acting chief financial officer, made a presentation about the budget on Monday night, at which time community members were able to comment on the financial plan.
Ponzini said the bylaw will be brought to council for three readings on April 8 and adopted on April 29.
“We would pretty much have to stick with those timelines in order to meet the May 15 deadline for the financial plan adoption with the ministry,” she said.
Zander said the city’s growth comes at “at a great cost” in the form of taxes, because it requires infrastructure such as roads, public facilities, schools, greenspace, environmental sustainability and other livability issues. He said the federal government can’t keep downloading onto municipal governments because local taxpayers are being “put to the wall” with increasing taxes.
“The last figure I heard, the taxes that go to the federal government, eight per cent comes back to the cities, the municipalities, but the municipalities have to supply all these things that I mentioned,” he said. “What is happening, to be blunt about it, is that the taxpayers are becoming fodder to reckless speculation and development.”
A New West resident, who said he’s on a fixed income, expressed concern that tax hikes are hard on low-income and fixed-income residents. He fears tax increases will make the city less affordable for renters, as landlords will have to raise rents and people on fixed incomes will have to move into smaller places or out of the city.
“It’s just not affordable for low-income and fixed-income families,” he said.
Daniel Fontaine, president of the New West Progressives, and NWP board director Paul McNamara, expressed concern about the budget, saying the increase is more like 7.74 per cent when taxes from new construction and other increased revenues are factored into the equation.
“Wages and benefits continue to rise rather rapidly, council continues to stack on new pet programs and expand services without any serious consideration on how we are actually going to pay for it or to look at reducing costs,” Fontaine said. “So, when the dust settles, all of this tonight really translates to a tax increase of about 7.74 per cent, not 5.28 per cent.”
Fontaine questioned if the city understands the impact of this year’s proposed tax hike and noted many seniors don’t want to defer their taxes because it’s debt that they’re putting off to another year.
McNamara said rising property values don’t mean property owners have more money in their pockets to pay for increasing taxes. In addition to the tax increase, he said utility increases that occur year after year begin to add up.
During her four years on council, Coun. Mary Trentadue said city hasn’t had a lot of response from citizens about the financial plan. Once this year’s process is complete, she feels it would be worthwhile to direct staff to consider this issue and find out why the city doesn’t get more input form the community and why people feel it’s not an open process.
“I thought some of the comments tonight were difficult to hear. It’s difficult to hear people are finding it challenging. I know these are very difficult decisions that we make at this table,” she said. “I also find it interesting that on one hand people are advocating for a $120-million pool and on the other hand don’t feel we are being completely responsible in our tax increases. That’s really hard to square. That is not helpful. I think it also doesn’t help the process.”
The New West Progressives are among the citizens who appealed to the city to replace Canada Games Pool with a 10-lane pool that would allow the city to host competitive swimming, rather than an eight-lane pool that had been proposed. Instead of the eight-lane pool estimated (preliminary figures) to cost $100 million, council agreed to support an enhanced 10-lane pool (estimated at $114 million) if the city was able to secure a "significant" grant from senior governments.