Prince Rupert city council debates infrastructure and tax increases

During the next election, the City is going to be asking voters if they want to see property taxes raised by up to 4.5 per cent at the most, in order to pay for road reconstruction and council has also decided that utility fees will be raised to deal with a long list of improvements to those services.

During the next election, the City is going to be asking voters if they want to see property taxes raised by up to 4.5 per cent at the most, in order to pay for road reconstruction and council has also decided that utility fees will be raised to deal with a long list of  improvements to those services.

A report on the Prince Rupert’s infrastructure needs by the  city’s chief financial officer, Dan Rodin, is recommending that the service fees for the landfill, water system and sewers continue to be raised by four to five per cent a year to fund improvements and expansions. The report also recommends that council use a plebiscite during the municipal election to gauge people’s willingness to see property taxes raised by 4.5 per cent to pay for road reconstruction rather than just patching them up like usual.

This is just the most recent step in the council’s long process of trying to address the city’s infrastructure needs. Since 2005 the city has been adding projects to their to-do list, and now the estimated cost of all those projects that need to be done in the next 10 years has climbed to $90-million.

Some of the projects will be funded gradually with the money that is collected from service fees charged to users. Smaller improvements to the landfill, water system and sewers can all be made  little-by-little over the next few years without council raising taxes or borrowing money, but only under the assumption that the fees for those services are raised every year by four to five per cent to counter rising costs.

Other projects, such as a sewer treatment facility, police station or fire hall would need a lot of money all at once, which the city could only get with grants and going into debt by borrowing money. But according to the Community Charter in order to borrow a large amount of money, the city  needs a bylaw approved in a referendum. The council has already decided to seek approval during the next election for borrowing money to replace one or both of the RCMP building and fire hall.

The matter of roads is the tricky part. Road maintenance can be done incrementally by just paying workers to patch the road surface with new asphalt like they usually do. The problem is that the road will need to be repaired again shortly. The other option is to reconstruct the roads.

To reconstruct a road they would tear up  all the layers of the road and completely rebuild them. This costs much more to do, but the advantage is that the road will last much longer and it gives the City a chance to replace the utility lines underneath the road and to add storm drains that don’t just flow into the city’s waste water; decreasing the chances of flooding.

But money to pay for roads comes mostly out of money from property taxes, so if the city wants to reconstruct roads instead of just patching them, it will have to raise taxes by 4.5 per cent, or approximately $450,000, to cover the cost.

The report suggests that the council use a plebiscite question during the next election to see if voters would prefer to pay extra taxes for new roads or not and continue to have to repair parts of them every year. It was on the matter of asking voters what they wanted that caused debate between the councillors.

Deputy mayor Sheila Gordon-Payne said that she thought that the idea of a plebiscite was a waste of time because if they were to ask people if they wanted their taxes raised by 4.5 per cent,  most people would reflexively vote “no.” Not only that, but the results of a plebiscite would not be binding on the council anyway, so it would still be up to them to make a decision in the end.

“I think its something any council-of-the-day can set up a 4.5 per cent tax increase in a year to do road reconstruction,” said Gordon-Payne.

Councillor Kathy Bedard agreed with Gordon-Payne and said that she was hoping the report was going to advocate a new approach to the city’s long to-do list of infrastructure projects. She said that maybe it was time for the City to do another  borrowing referendum to tackle the big projects that keep being put on hold.

“I’d like to look at this a little bit differently, and perhaps the best way to do that is a referendum,” said Bedard.

The problem with that, the CFO explained, was there was not enough time before the election to allow the city’s engineering department to come up with a list of most needed big projects to finance, have a borrowing bylaw drawn up by council at the next meeting, and still get it approved in Victoria to go on the ballot.

Councillor Anna Ashley said it was important to ask people their opinion but wondered if they could leave out the exact amount of the tax increase out of the actual question and just ask if people would be in favour of spending more money on roads.

Councillor Gina Garon said that they should put it aside for now because they were being asked to make an important spending decision that could put the City into decades worth of debt too quickly. She made a motion to put it off until the next council is elected.

“There’s so many issues to look at and I’m not willing to take this on, at this late in the game, with is council,” says Garon.

Her motion was put to a vote and failed. After more debate Councillor Bedard suggested that they make it “up to 4.5 per cent”  to show people that 4.5 is the limit to any tax increase. This motion passed, but it was not unanimous.