A property tax rate increase of 2.4 per cent has been set for Prince Rupert in 2011.
While final adoption of the tax rate occurred during a special meeting on Wednesday at noon in City Hall chambers, the bulk of discussion around the rate and the city’s five-year financial plan occurred during the regular council meeting on Monday evening.
In opposition to the rate, Councillor Gordon-Payne continued to voice concerns over a budget line showing tax income from Watson Island that hasn’t materialized, while Councillor Bedard said she didn’t like seeing infrastructure items such as roads and parks taking a cut.
Making a case for the rate, Councillor Anna Ashley suggested it was a balancing act.
“I think that right now the increase is a compromise from raising the taxes any higher, but recognition that we have bills to pay and we need to pay them. Does that mean in the future we shouldn’t be looking at changes and re-evaluating? I don’t think so. We’ve been trying to do that as we try to balance cutting services and staff and providing services,” she said.
Mayor Jack Mussallem agreed and said it’s hard to operate without raising taxes to meet rising costs.
“On an annual basis the City encounters non-discretionary costs such as increases in hydro and gas that we have no control over ,” he said, adding that this year taxes would have been raised 9 per cent to meet all requests, but council and staff tried to find the lowest rate possible.
The 2.4 per cent increase will enable the city to pay for one RCMP officer position, formerly paid for through an another funding program, and will result in an operating budget expenditure of $4,405,000 for the RCMP out of the City’s total expenditure budget of $23,710,000.
There was an opportunity Monday night for the public to comment on the proposed tax rate and the amended five-year financial plan.
Jason Scherr, 2nd President of the Prince Rupert & District Chamber of Commerce, and private citizen Larry Golden, were the only people to make comments.
Sherr told council the Chamber advocated a municipal tax freeze and that the budget be balanced by reducing expenditures, rather than increasing taxes.
Those measures, he said, would lessen the burden on businesses and promote a competitive economy.
Building on concerns made by Councillors Gordon-Payne and Bedard in the first round of discussions about the tax rate at the April 26 council meeting, Scherr said the Chamber wanted to know why there hadn’t been cuts to the administration budget, which accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the budget, and why council had approved over $1.6 million in grant funding to community groups before it knew what the final budget would look like.
“It’s important that the budget be developed in its entirety so that all expenditures receive the same level of scrutiny,” Scherr said.
City Manager Gordon Howie responded that there have been reductions in the neighbourhood of half a million dollars in the operating budget of various departments, including the reduction in $50,000 out of parks and $100,000 out of the roads.
Scherr also asked if CityWest will be paying a dividend in 2011, which it didn’t in 2010, and heard the board has recommended a payment of $1 million for this year.
After the meeting Scherr told The Northern View the Chamber is still waiting to hear back from the council on a proposed Municipal Relations Committee and whether members of council would be willing to sit on the Chamber committee.
“We were asked for a terms of reference, which we sent in a month ago, and we haven’t heard anything back yet,” Scherr said.
Golden asked about the timeline for public comment on the budget and said normally there’s a public meeting before the final adoption of the budget and tax rate.
“I think the citizens deserve to have a larger say and to really go through it with a fine tooth comb, rather than making generic statements,” he told council.
Mayor Jack Mussallem responded that the five-year financial plan has been available to the public to review and find out about particular items or get a greater understanding by coming and talking to City staff.
The mayor also said anyone with questions on Monday night would receive a written response from the City.
Councillor Gordon-Payne told the Mayor she felt the questions should be answered at the meeting if possible, rather than making people wait.
“My concern is that we’re just doing the process lip service and that we’ll hear the questions and we won’t hear any answers and we will proceed on our own information. If we’re able to answer them tonight I think that brings value to the process,” she explained.
Golden honed in on specific budget lines such as the Duncan Road extension for $1,000,000 and Civic Centre events sign for $60,000 and heard both items are being supported with grant and sponsorship funding.
“I see the public works vehicle budget is over a million dollars and I think that’s onerous for us wanting to be a green town,” Golden added.
He also criticized the budgeted taxpayer subsidy of $800,000 for the airport ferry in 2011.
“The taxpayers in this town shouldn’t be supporting the airport ferry to the tune of $800,000 to $900,000 a year. I would make the suggestion that we go should try and go the B.C. Ferries route. See that as an extension of our highway to the local villages and try to get something that way,” Golden said.