Saanich council will resume budget deliberations April 10 following a joint meeting with the police board in late March.

Saanich councillor calls for significant reduction to tax lift

As the clock ticks down on budget deliberations, calls for further reductions to Saanich’s proposed tax hike are growing.

“From my perspective, there is room to bring it down significantly,” said Coun. Karen Harper. She made these comments Tuesday before council held a joint in-camera meeting with the Saanich Police Board.

As of this writing, Saanich proposed tax hike stands at 3.73 per cent, after council had approved several budget cutting measures in mid-March.

Council started budget deliberations in late February with a draft budget that called for a tax hike of 4.17 per cent, which would have seen average homeowners pay $163 more, if all municipal taxes and utilities were to be included.

Council has since whittled down this number. It also showed some teeth when it asked the police board to limit its increase to 3.5 per cent. The original budget requested an increase of 4.63 per cent. Council has since softened this stance by signalling the police board that it would accept a “status quo” budget with an increase of 3.81 per cent.

These figures formed the background as council Tuesday held a joint meeting with the members of the Saanich Police Board behind closed doors. Mayor Richard Atwell — who also chairs the police board — declined to discuss the meeting, citing its in-camera nature. “The board will have its position by the next meeting on April 3,” he said.

Coun. Leif Wergeland also declined to discuss details, but said the police budget remains one of the most difficult items. The ever-changing nature of policing requires increased budgets, he said. “But as residents and council, we need to begin living and spending within our needs, not within our wants. Although many of our residents can afford to spend more, there are many who can not.”

Council, meeting as committee-of-the-whole, will resume budget discussions April 10. If an additional meeting were required, it would take place on April 25. The final tax increase would be established with the passing of financial plan and tax rates bylaws in early May.

Harper, for her part, would like to see council revisit some of the proposed budget cutting measures that council did not consider in mid-March.

Among other issues, she would like to take a look at Saanich’s policy of increasing its core capital budget by two per cent annually, with staff being more discriminating between “nice-to-have” and “need-to-have” projects. Harper also said she would like to see Saanich develop new ways to manage its surplus in the future. Some, not all, of the annual reserves could be used for strategic uses in the future, she said.

Staff has recommended against both options. The annual core capital increase constitutes a “very modest attempt to keep the core budget in pace with inflation” and the continued use of surpluses requires their on-going presence. Harper’s colleagues also appear to be cool towards the idea of using surplus funds to cut the tax lift.

“I acknowledge it’s awfully low-hanging fruit to take that money and just apply it to next year’s lift and make it lower,” said Coun. Colin Plant during earlier budget discussion. “And if I wasn’t running for re-election, may be I’d even suggest that. But I don’t think it’s good governance to do that at this time.”

This said, Plant acknowledged chief administrative officer Paul Thorkelsson, who had said earlier that council would have an opportunity to potentially use some of the surplus to help offset taxes, once the final surplus figure was available. “And with all due respect, try again,” said Plant. “May be you will find five [councillors] who would want to do this. But I can’t tonight.”

If key aspects of Saanich’s municipal budget remain murky, Saanich residents did learn last week they will have to pay $12.52 — or 2.76 per cent — per cent in additional taxes for various regional services, according to financial documents released. This increase covers services offered through the Capital Regional District (CRD), the Capital Regional Hospital District (CRDH) and municipal debt servicing.

Overall, the total regional tax bill for the average Saanich home owner (based on assessment) adds up to $465.71.

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