Tensions remain high in the community of Osoyoos as its council weathers the backlash from the recently adopted tax and utility hikes for 2024.
Hundreds of residents came out to an impromptu town hall on Nov. 29, to share their concerns and ideas on how to reduce the hits coming their way.
Town council approved the 2024 budget on Oct. 24, after a process that some residents have taken issue with.
“I don’t feel that one budget meeting was enough,” Ron Sargeant told council on Nov. 28. “I don’t feel that was even an open meeting when there was 150 people on the grass and only 50 people got in.”
Many more of those people made it to the informal forum on Nov. 29. Also present was a pickup truck with two petitions for residents to sign, one including categories of residents who say they will lose their homes, their jobs or be forced to move as a result of the hike.
The budget includes a 37 per cent increase to the average property’s municipal taxes, along with a 117 per cent increase in sewer and 146 per cent increase in water utility rates.
On the average residential property with a value of $720,535, the municipal tax rate is expected to reach $1,080.51 for 2024, up $295.56 from $784.95 in 2023.
Sewer costs for residents are expected on average to hit $824.40 a year, up $444.58 from the previous $379.82, while water costs are expected to hit an average of $1,133.39 a year, up $673.84 from $459.55.
Residents of Osoyoos began organizing their anger en masse with the hikes shortly after the town began mailing out notifications to residents.
A special meeting on Nov. 23, to deal with allowing Dec. 2 fireworks to happen with a variance for the organizer to have less liability insurance than required in the town’s bylaw, was derailed and canceled.
Residents also joined the meeting on Nov. 28, with Sargeant speaking during the committee of the whole and him and others speaking up during the regular meeting that followed. The interruptions were shut down by the mayor, but are clearly audible on the recording of the meeting.
At the Nov. 28 meeting, some members of council addressed certain members of the public who have gone beyond complaints and criticims.
“First off, I’d like to apologize for the situation we’re in,” said Coun. Johnny Cheong. “I took office to serve the people, not for personal gain. I took time away from my family, from my 20-month old, and from my business to serve and help. I live in Osoyoos, I pay the same taxes as all residents, and just because I have a name tag here doesn’t make me any less of a human than anyone else. I don’t deserve to be harassed, my wife doesn’t.”
The state of the community’s infrastructure has been cited as the driver for much of the increases in taxes and utility rates. The community’s ongoing issues with water quality from its wells, and with odours from the wastewater treatment plant, were noted in the budget and at the Nov. 28 meeting.
“These issues have been developing for decades, and I’ve been in office for 13 months. This is an impossible situation,” said Cheong. “We have $60.5 [million], six-zero-point-five million dollars, in water and sewer capital projects over the next five years, and that’s today’s quote. To put that in context a one per cent increase property taxes is just shy of $32,000.”
Mayor Sue McKortoff also spoke to the harassment and discrimination that was being leveled over the budget. She also spoke to an accusation of a conflict in the budget that had been posted in an open letter from Dustin Sikora, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2022.
The accusation claimed that documents and recordings of council meetings had McKortoff voting to enrich a personal friend who runs the annual Music in the Park program.
“I want the public to know that council makes the decision on where funding is allocated,” McKortoff said.
“A majority vote is what determines where funding is allocated. To be clear, I did vote on funding this event. The decision was unanimous to fund the Music in the Park application. I want to be clear that I take my job as mayor and my oath of office very seriously.”
Sikora later published a revised version of his letter on social media with the section that McKortoff addressed removed.
Cheong also told the public at the Nov. 28 meeting that staff had been asked to set up an official forum on the budget and tax hikes. No date for that has been announced.