COUNCIL HEADS INTO 2013 BUDGET TALKS WITH ‘FAIR’ TAX INCREASE THE STATED GOAL

By on January 30, 2013

Members of Town of Osoyoos council are meeting all week to discuss and complete 2013 budget deliberations. About the only things guaranteed are there is going to be plenty of debate about whether or not to create a reserve fund to pay for additional policing costs three or four years down the road and resolving to come up with a tax increase that is fair and modest following last year’s decision to freeze property tax rates for the first time in many years.
After talking to Mayor Stu Wells and town councillors Sue McKortoff, Michael Ryan, Mike Plante and C.J. Rhodes, all agree that the budget process and passing a new budget is one of the most challenging and important tasks they tackle as municipal politicians.
They agree a slight tax increase is coming following last year’s decision to not increase the property tax mill rate. They also agree one of the key discussions will evolve around whether or not to start putting aside significant amounts of tax dollars into a reserve fund to pay for the extra police costs once the town’s population exceeds 5,000, which is expected once the next national census takes place in 2016.
Under current provincial legislation, municipalities that have a population in excess of 5,000 are responsible for paying for 65 per cent of police costs, instead of the current 35 per cent.
Wells said budget time is always exciting, but there’s a lot of work to do in a short period of time and a lot of important decisions have to be made.
While members of council approve the final budget, members of senior staff are given the task of producing the budget document and coming up with what they feel are priorities, said Wells.
“The directors come up with a short list of everything they would like to see done in the coming year,” said Wells, who will be involved in his eighth budget as mayor. “We usually start the process going for the moon, but then reality sets in about what we can afford and things get whittled down.”
Osoyoos, like most municipalities across Canada, has a five-year capital spending budget and this provides an important “road map” of what senior staff considers the most pressing infrastructure and construction projects that need completion, said Wells.
“We follow our five-year plan pretty closely,” he said. “But priorities do change and something that might be on the list for being completed three years down the road can be bumped up to the top of the list for any number of reasons. What the five-year plan does is ensure we’re getting some major projects completed every year … we determine what those projects will be for the coming year during the budget process.”
Wells said one of the most important discussions for this year’s budget will be deciding whether or not to create a reserve fund for the expected increase in policing costs once the town’s population officially exceeds 5,000.
“A key question is going to be do we start putting aside money now for when we go over 5,000 or do we wait until that happens,” said Wells. “I know Peachland faced the same situation a few years ago and they had a reserve fund of $700,000 or $800,000 sitting there once they crossed 5,000 and it made the transition very easy.
“The two theories are we put aside money for the future or we don’t worry about it and adopt a pay-as-you-go mentality. I personally would hope council is in favour of putting money aside each year so we have the funds available in the future. This will all come out during the budget.”
After the tax freeze last year, Wells said it would be foolhardy to suggest that is going to happen again.
The tax freeze was implemented because the town’s reserve funds were in great shape and the local economy was struggling and property owners could use a break, but the reality is the level of service and completing infrastructure upgrades takes money and a slight tax increase that is affordable remains the goal, said Wells.
“I think the goal should be coming up with a fair increase that won’t hit people too hard, but allows us to get things done that need to be done in the town,” he said.
McKortoff, who is entering her second year on council, said the budget process was very intimidating as a rookie councillor last year, but she’s much more confident and looking forward to the process this time around.
“As a new member of council, the budget was very intimidating as there’s a ton of stuff thrown at you,” she said.
McKortoff agrees key issues are going to be the debate over policing costs and where to spend money on major capital projects in 2013.
Two projects she wants to see become reality in 2013 are the opening of a new splash park at Jack Shaw Gardens and installation of new gym and exercise equipment for all local residents and visitors at a couple of town beaches.
She’s also interested in ensuring funding is in place to start a thorough upgrade of Gyro Beach, including introducing walking and bike paths and building a new pier, which was discussed by council and all stakeholders as part of a public consultation process this past summer.
McKortoff agrees a tax increase is inevitable in 2013.
“I don’t see how we can possibly come in at zero once again,” she said. “There are too many things on the go and too many important projects that need to be completed. That being said, I think we need to keep any increase to a fair and reasonable level.”
The issue about creating a new reserve fund to pay for policing costs down the road should prove for some very interesting debate during the budget process, she said.
Plante, who was also a rookie councillor last year, said staff do a terrific job setting priorities and making suggestions on how tax dollars should be spent.
“Staff really helps us during this process,” he said. “It’s a long process with a lot of information thrown at us and they provide a really good guide of which projects they think need to be completed, knowing we do have a budget and only so much money to spend.”
Plante, who is one of the founders of the local splash park committee, said his major personal priority is ensuring the new splash park opens in late spring or early summer.
“I’ve been 100 per cent committed to this and I want to make sure it happens,” he said.
Council recently conducted a thorough review of all facilities owned by the town and it’s time to make a decision on which buildings to upgrade and which ones to shut down permanently, he said.
The debate over policing costs, he agrees, is going to be interesting during this budget debate.
“We really need to determine this year if we’re going to start putting money away or make a decision that we will worry about that once we go over 5,000 in population and let the people who live in town at that time pay for the increased costs,” he said.
To maintain the current level of services in town, Plante agrees a “reasonable tax increase” remains the goal of council.
Ryan, who is entering his fourth budget process, said improving the amount of affordable housing units in town remains one of his top priorities.
“We don’t have a lot of affordable housing units in this community and I would like to see that change,” he said.
Another key priority will be trying to secure funding to improve sidewalks in many areas of town, especially on the north side of the bridge that separates the north and south side of Osoyoos Lake, said Ryan.
Members of town council were on hand on Wednesday during a public meeting held o discuss the town’s five-year capital plan and 2013-2015 business plan.
The meeting was held at the Sonora Community Centre.
If required, a second meeting will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 6, also at the Sonora Centre in Room 5 beginning at 9 a.m.
If anyone has any questions about the budget or budget process, they are asked to contact administration at 250-495-6515.

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