Salmon Arm council could find little room to lessen the impact the city’s 2019 budget will have on taxpayers.
After an eight-and-a-half hour day of deliberation on Monday, Jan. 7, council was able to reduce the proposed 4.88 per cent tax increase to 4.25 per cent. This was accomplished largely through financial tweaking and utilization of reserves.
“I think because of the tightness of this year’s budget, there was not a lot of kind of what people might qualify as extra projects, and any little tweaks that were done, getting money from different reserves, were a result of the toughness of the budget,” commented Mayor Alan Harrison after he and council gave third reading to the city’s 2019 to 2023 Financial Plan bylaw.
Council acknowledged going into the deliberation process that the budget would be a challenge, noting city staff had already made a considerable effort to minimize the overall tax impact.
“I know as a councillor, I’m never asked to reduce services and I’m never asked to increase taxes and yet that’s the two leverage items or methods we have on a day like today,” commented Coun. Louise Wallace Richmond. “And it is not possible to cut expenses and decrease revenue at the same time. So we have to make some big choices today.”
Coun. Chad Eliason pointed out how, over the past 10 years, the largest tax increase amounted to 2.96 per cent and, since 2013, increases have hovered around 1.5 per cent.
“If you look at a two per cent inflation rate or a CPI of three per cent or whatever you look at, we’ve been under-taxing or underspending…,” said Eliason. “Sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes those things are out of your control, and I think this is a budget that will reflect it. So is this going to be our toughest budget? Maybe – if we were spending much money that’s frivolous, but these aren’t costs that we can avoid.”
Council noted a large percentage of the proposed budget increase consisted of costs beyond the city’s control. These include such things as municipal staff wages and benefits, policing services and the Employer Health Tax, the province’s replacement for MSP premiums, being phased in one year before MSP is phased out.
“Even more so than other years, there’s significant decisions by other levels of government that are impacting this budget, and the most obvious one is the Employer Health Tax,” commented Coun. Kevin Flynn. “We were already paying our employees’ MSP to the tune of about $70,000… Just to be clear, they did not eliminate MSP premiums like they promised, they just moved them to employers, and that impact on the city’s budget this year is $158,000, approximately. We’re not saving $70,000 this year, we will next year if I’m correct… but this year there’s a double payment… that’s a significant impact.”
The policing services budget comes with a $227,765 increase, totalling $3.75 million. The majority of this goes towards wages and benefits.
In a presentation to council, Staff Sgt. Scott West outlined the wide array of costs associated with policing, stressing a need for additional staffing to deal with such things as media information requests and transcription of statements. In addition, there are technology and vehicle requirements, as well as necessary improvements/upgrades to the detachment itself.
“Overall, our costs our not going down,” said West.
For 2019, the city is beefing up its ice and snow removal and sanding budget by $154,000 to $1.026 million. In her report to council, city chief financial officer Chelsea Van de Cappelle notes the final snow clearing budget for 2018 amounted to $1.136 million, with $245,000 of that being transferred from reserve.
During discussion of the city recreation centre budget, council voted to support an additional $31,000 for the hiring of a third, full-time lifeguard. This will allow for an increase in operating hours.
“I really appreciated Coun. Debbie Cannon’s lead there as our recreation representative,” said Harrison. “Clearly, in the surveys that we received regarding the new recreation centre, overwhelmingly the response was, you know, we want more access, especially for public swimming hours. So we’ve made some efforts to try and make that happen and you know, in defence of the recreation staff, they’re working with a facility that’s not necessarily designed to have dual purpose to it and so that also has become clear in the feedback from the public, that they would like an aquatic centre that is leisure based. I think you’ll see that at the public open house in February.”
Despite the tight budget, council agreed to fund a number of requests from different community groups and individuals through the specific referral process. This included funding to assist with the provision of an electrical hub on the south end of the Salmon Arm fairgrounds and $35,000 to relocate the bus shelter from the front of the downtown Askew’s so that the local grocer can move forward with plans for an outdoor patio space.
A number of specific referrals revolved around storm water management and drainage, and it was noted the city is working on a drainage master plan with a staff report coming to council possibly in the spring.
“Climate change and change in weather and storm water is becoming more and more of an issue in the cities, especially in cities that are mounted on hills like ours, because of the volume and tenacity of rain storms now…,” said Harrison. “We have to deal with flooding concerns throughout the city and that costs money.”
Harrison noted there was an unusually large number of specific referrals this year, which he views as a good thing.
“It means the budget process was more public, people are paying attention and some of those specific referrals were funded because in a number of cases they were for the benefit of, you know, the benefit of the city and the benefit of a group of people rather than just one individual,” said Harrison.