City Hall faces some tough decisions as it seeks to trim 1.5 per cent in spending.

City Hall faces some tough decisions as it seeks to trim 1.5 per cent in spending.

Saanich council continues to wrestle with 2017 budget

District currently anticipating 4.45 per cent increase in tax revenues in ‘fork-in-the-road’ budget

Council hopes to reduce the 4.45 per cent hike in tax revenues looming over Saanich residents, looking to shave 1.5 per cent off the tax bill as it finalizes its “fork-in-the-road” budget for the district.

Without passing a motion and Coun. Dean Murdock absent, council asked staff to prepare a report Monday.

Coun. Susan Brice said council has clearly signalled its desire to “lower the impact on taxes” while remaining responsible to its obligations. “We don’t want to force scenarios that [are] uncomfortable,” she said. “On the other hand, it never hurts us to see information, hear the reaction and then discard it or pick it up.”

However, she also hinted that the public might not like some of those decisions. “We might have to gird ourselves for some of those decisions,” she said.

Brice made these comments after several hours of budget deliberations during which council considered among other things grant requests of various types from more than 40 organizations ranging across a wide range of interests as part of a larger process to reconcile different and ultimately competing priorities. They included requests for additional staffing, public demands for fiscal accountability and electoral politics with a municipal election looming next year.

Perhaps central to this confluence of interests is a report from Saanich’s chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelsson that raises significant questions about the responsiveness of the organization and rebukes past decisions.

“There are a significant capacity gaps in the organization that have developed over time primarily as the result of fiscal restraint policy decisions since 2008,” he said. “This restraint approach, while satisfying situational fiscal management priorities over the long term, has resulted in the current state” defined by informal service reductions and increasing frustration from council and some members of the community about “time, cost and quality of municipal services.”

Thorkelsson said Saanich could continue “doing less with less” or increase budgets beyond inflation to “adequately resource the organization operationally and strategically.”

Additional staff needs that Thorkelsson categorized as “high” include the restoration of a full-time in-house lawyer post, a procurement specialist to help manage capital work projects and staff in IT security and privacy.

Council has already signalled its support for additional staffing, but must now balance this decision with reducing the budget by 1.5 per cent in the wake of growing concerns about fiscal accountability and the impact of taxes on Saanich residents struggling with high housing and rising costs of living.

To this end, councillors have been reviewing a list of five options: reduce additional funding to the capital infrastructure program; reduce annual operating contingency; fund current year operations from prior surpluses; and reduce grant funding and permissive tax exemptions. The fifth and final option – reducing services across the municipality – would require staff cuts running counter to current staff challenges.

Council debated the first four options during the final hour of Monday’s special committee of the whole financial plan meeting without coming away with a final decision despite urgings from Coun. Leif Wergeland. The fourth option – reducing grant funding and permissive tax exemptions – would also not be fully available this year as savings from reduced tax exemptions would not become available until 2019.

Couns. Fred Haynes and Colin Plant appeared to drive the discussion during the evening by proposing variations on the two middle options: reducing the annual operating contingency and funding current year operations from prior year surpluses – options which staff did not recommend in a staff report.

While Haynes and Plant acknowledged those concerns, they also note that Saanich was actually in better shape than other comparable municipalities. Saanich, in other words, they suggested, has wiggle room to delay projects and move funds around.