New Westminster striving to demystify budget - starting Monday

New Westminster is aiming to demystify the city’s budget and to clarify the financial impacts of tackling climate change.

Staff recently updated council on the proposed 2020 to 2024 capital program, which aims to respond to council’s March 2019 declaration of a climate emergency by prioritizing climate emergency actions in the work plan and the five-year financial plan. In November, council approved “seven bold steps” to address climate change, which relate to carbon free corporation, car-light community, carbon-free homes and buildings, pollution-free vehicles, carbon-free energy, robust urban forest and quality, people-centred public realm.

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“I think that’s a really good opportunity, not only to engage the community in our budget, but also to engage the community in our seven bold steps for climate change and the city’s strategic plan,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “The reality is all of these things are related, and I think we need to have a holistic conversation as opposed to having these conversations in silos.”

Cote encourages community members to participate in the public engagement process that’s getting underway regarding the budget and climate action.

The capital program includes things like buildings, engineering structures, land, park improvements, equipment and vehicles.

“It shows that of the $467 million being proposed in the capital program over the next five years, $260 million is considered to support climate emergency through a wide variety of projects,” said Colleen Ponzini, the city’s director of finance.

The Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre replacement project, sustainable transportation with a focus on public realm, walking, cycling and transit, and low-carbon fleet vehicles are some of the items in the capital program that support the city’s efforts to tackle the climate emergency.

At the Dec. 9 council meeting, departments will provide more details about the capital plan.

As they’ve worked through the five-year capital plan, Ponzini said staff has had to defer some projects.

“In order to maintain affordability, some infrastructure, building renewal and other projects that might otherwise be included in this capital plan are being deferred beyond the time horizon of this plan,” said a staff memo. “This infrastructure and equipment will be closely monitored as to their performance and condition, and if considered necessary may need to be incorporated into the plan in subsequent years.”

In terms of funding of the $467-million capital program, Ponzini said $242 million is expected to come from city reserves, $42 million from grants and contributions and $183 million from debt.

“The city already has the authority to borrow for some projects through existing loan-authorization bylaws, such as for the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and a Queensborough substation. However, we will need to increase that authority in the near future to be able to fund the projects as included in this report, such as some public realm projects ($10.5 million), part of the Massey Theatre replacement ($6.8 million) and a district energy system ($52 million).”

According to Ponzini, the impact of the borrowing is that the city will have approximately $220 million in long-term debt, with annual debt-servicing costs in the range of $18 million by 2022.

Although the city has applied for grants from senior governments, Ponzini said errs on the side of caution in case the city isn’t successful in getting those grants.

“The Canada Games Pool is one that people might be thinking of that we would be budgeting a grant. We are only budgeting a piece of a grant that relates to child care that we feel that we have a very strong ability to secure,” she said. “We haven’t built into this plan for other grants that we are really hoping we are going to get – and they would reduce the debt. We try to only budget those that we are very confident that that funding is likely to come forward.”

Lisa Spitale, chief administrative officer, said public engagement components related to the 2020 to 2024 financial plan include council meetings, an open house, an online survey and a community workshop. She said there will also be a community engagement process related to the climate emergency.

“We recognize that there are two processes that are moving forward, but they are aligned. The seven bold steps and the climate emergency, we are starting to talk about a full process around that. Talking about it. Educating. Communication. How do we work together? All of that,” she said. “We also know that the budget process – first of all it’s important because it’s our authority to spend, but what we are trying to do here is to find ways to demystify it.”

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said that when people hear “capital budget” it doesn’t sound that exciting and it also sounds pretty intense. In addition to ensuring the information is presented in a clear way for those who attend public-engagement opportunities, she also wants to make sure it’s done in a way that gets a broad swath of the community to come out and share their views.

Coun. Patrick Johnstone said he’d like the city to provide information that shows people how the capital budget relates to taxation.

“The capital program is where we are building the big things and where we are making the major purchases,” Ponzini said. “The way it impacts operations is we have to use city staff to deliver these programs.”

According to Ponzini, the capital program impacts the city’s operations because it needs to make sure it has the appropriate staff and resources available to do the work being planned.

“The other part of it is the funding, of course,” she said. “The more that we have to spend on the capital program through reserves and/or other funding makes it more challenging to have the money available for the operating programs, which in turn results in increased tax rates ultimately and/or other revenues.”

2020 budget dates to remember:

Dec. 9: Council meeting includes an opportunity for people to address proposed 2020 capital budget with mayor and council.

Dec. 11: Open house from 4 to 8 p.m. at Century House to provide budget overview and information about climate emergency initiatives and strategic plan.

Dec. 16: An online survey will begin seeking community feedback.

Jan. 9: Workshop on 2020 capital budget at Anvil Centre Theatre from 6 to 9 p.m.

Jan. 13: Council meeting provides people with a second opportunity to provide mayor and council with feedback on proposed 2020 capital budget.

Jan. 14 to Feb. 21: Staff compiling all information received from community into draft 2020 capital budget.

Feb. 24: Council meeting where staff will present the draft 2020 capital budget and the proposed 2020 operating budget (which sets the tax rate) for council’s consideration. Meeting includes an opportunity for public to comment on 2020 operating budget.

Feb. 25 to March 27: Community information and engagement process continues for proposed 2020 operating budget.

April 2020: Staff will consolidate the 2020 to 2024 financial plan and financial plan bylaw, including the capital budget and operating budget.

May 15: Deadline for city to approve 2020 to 2024 financial plan.


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