After almost 90 minutes of back and forth discussion and debate, Prince Rupert city council voted to raise taxes for residents and businesses in order to prevent increasing fees for recreation users or drawing down on a $3.5 million surplus.
Chief financial officer Corinne Bomben initially recommended a one per cent tax increase along with a five per cent increase to city fees across the board, which included all recreation facilities, building permits, development permits, parking passes and other services. The one per cent includes an increase in the dividend paid by CityWest from $250,000 to $400,000 and assumes the Prince Rupert Port Authority will pay all of its payment-in-lieu-of-taxes.
The idea of raising fees at the civic centre, pool and arena was quickly opposed by some councillors, who noted a recreation commission had just been formed and a new manager put in place and wanted to give those involved time to examine recreation before reporting back.
“Why would we interfere with that and maybe drive people away,” questioned Coun. Joy Thorkelson, who noted a similar increase to transit fares resulted in a four per cent drop in ridership.
“If we keep upping the fees, it will be like BC Ferries and nobody will be able to afford it. We want to see that civic centre as packed as possible,” said Coun. Gina Garon.
But other councillors felt increasing user fees would be the best option to give residents and businesses a break, and recommended using $133,000 from the $3.5 million surplus to create a zero per cent tax increase for this year.
“We’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. Well, I don’t. I don’t want to see a tax increase. I have been on council for 12 years and every year it has been an increase. People need a break,” said Coun. Nelson Kinney.
“I don’t agree with any tax increase, not because it is going to affect me personally but because the people of Prince Rupert have seen small increase followed by small increase followed by small increase … it adds up,” added Coun. Judy Carlick-Pearson.
Councillors Barry Cunningham and Anna Ashley, who seemed to disagree on the user fee versus tax increase debate, did agree that a lot of the blame for the current situation could be put at the feet of the Prince Rupert Port Authority for not paying what the city viewed as the full PILT in years past.
“The port is getting richer, but the town is getting poorer … we need to get more out of port operations and it isn’t just the port authority but the province too because they put the cap on port industry … the port authority says they are the gateway for the rest of Canada, then the rest of Canada can pay taxes to us since we carry the burden,” said Cunningham.
“Every year we have had a tax increase we would not have had if the port had paid what we thought they should,” said Ashley.
But Bomben urged council not to draw down on the surplus as the city needs to have $4 million available for major renovations to the water supply, including repairing the nearly-century old dam at Shawatlans, burying the terrestrial part of the main water line and repairing the marine portion. The $4 million is needed for the city to apply for the other two-thirds of the needed $12 million from the federal government.
In the end, Coun. Thorkelson put forward a motion to increase taxes by 1.2 per cent while increasing all fees by five per cent with the exception of those related to recreation. The motion was supported by Councillors Thorkelson, Garon, Cunningham and Carlick-Pearson and opposed by Councillors Ashley and Kinney. Mayor Jack Mussallem was absent from the meeting.
The vote on Tuesday night was for the first three readings of the bylaw, meaning it will still need to be given fourth reading and formally passed by council.