Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes acknowledges that the 2019 draft budget includes a “big lift” in terms of property taxes, but adds that the draft budget is just that — a draft that council has yet to work through. He also says the provincial government ties the hands of Saanich by downloading costs, specifically, the Employers Health Tax (EHT).
Budget deliberations are scheduled to start this week following the release of the draft budget.
It proposes to raise revenue from property taxes by 5.93 per cent. More than a quarter of this proposed increase goes towards covering the EHT that Saanich has to absorb following the introduction of the EHT. According to the draft budget, the tax applies to all employee groups working for the municipality, and replaces Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums, which employees either fully paid or cost-shared with the District, depending on the union.
Despite criticism from municipal leaders, the EHT came into effect on Jan. 1.
Haynes said in his initial comments that he remains “disappointed” with this decision in trying to draw a clear line between the EHT portion of the proposed tax increase and the remaining portion.
This spirit also appears in the draft itself, which describes the introduction of the EHT as “an imposition” that will appear as separate line on property tax notices.
The Saanich News also reached out to all eight councillors and reactions so far also focused on the EHT. “I maintain that I am still disappointed the province downloaded the costs of eliminating the MSP in the form of the [EHT],” said Coun. Colin Plant.
Coun. Judy Brownoff echoed this point. “With the start of budget deliberations, it is important to recognize a few challenges we face. One is the new [EHT] adding a 1.5 per cent lift to property taxes,” she said. “Plus we are not immune to ‘non discretionary’ higher costs that are through external sources like hydro and gas usage.”
Both Plant and Brownoff acknowledged that the municipality faces challenges. But Brownoff stressed that the process has just started. “Yes, challenges always occur at the start of budget deliberations but as we have proven in the past, we will roll up our sleeves, listen to public input and in the next couple of months we will have refined the budget,” she said.
Plant struck a similar note. “While the budget presents us with some significant challenges, the reality is that these are the costs of having one, if not the best, municipalities in British Columbia,” he said. “We are a community that has not put off important investments in our infrastructure and gotten deep into debt. Our debt load for a municipality our size is very low.”
Looking at the premises that underpinned formulation of the draft budget, they did not identify any acceptable areas for service reduction or elimination, but also froze net departmental budgets at 2018 levels, exclusive of existing personnel costs, phased in funding for positions approved by council in the prior year, core capital increases, and non-discretionary increases, among other conditions.