Council Tuesday continued to cut the proposed tax hike in the 2018 municipal budget.

Saanich councillors sharpen knives for budget deliberations

Budget talks have cut Saanich’s proposed tax hike to 3.73 per cent.

The public first heard this figure Tuesday evening after Saanich’s council meeting as a committee-of-the-whole had approved three budget cutting measures. But councillors stressed the figure remains fluid.

“We still have a few balls in the air,” said Coun. Susan Brice in reference to ongoing efforts by the police board to find additional savings after council had questioned their provisional budget.

Saanich’s 2018 draft budget balances $288.3 million in revenues and transfers against $288.3 in expenditures, up almost $20 million from the previous year, and includes a 4.17 per increase in revenue from property taxes.

Council last year asked staff to present options for reducing the tax impact by between 1 and 1.5 per cent. Under the first option, council must find cuts or additional revenues worth about $1.15 million, $1.73 million under the second option.

Staff heading into the meeting presented councillors with options that would have yielded savings worth 1.96 per cent, if all were adopted.

Council Tuesday found, on balance, savings worth 0.44 per cent. This figure accounts for additional grants and improvements to Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.

The largest savings came from reducing the reserve for IT infrastructure improvements by $500,000 after staff had told councillors withholding this money would not have significant impacts.

Coun. Colin Plant said this reserve was a “reasonable place” to look for savings, while acknowledging IT improvements remain a continuous need.

Council also found $25,000 in savings by cutting paper agendas and $17,500 by not placing ads for upcoming meetings, a non-statutory requirement.

Additional savings might also become available as councillors asked staff to prepare reports into the effects of cutting contributions to a reserve fund for future capital projects.

A 2017 report says Saanich’s parks and public works yard “warrents replacement” at an unknown but likely high cost, and staff warned delaying payments to the reserve undercuts the ability to help finance future capital works project without “significant tax increases.”

Councillors also asked staff to investigate the economic effects of changing the conditions of the senior discount for admission to recreation facilities. They currently give residents over the age of 60 years a 25 per cent discount. Staff are now looking into the effects of raising the eligibility age to 65. Plant stressed that this step is not about cutting the discount.

Councillors also approved raising their own salaries according to Saanich’s policy, which adjusts annual remunerations on the average of other B.C. municipalities of comparable size. Under the increase, the mayor’s salary increases by 1.76 per cent to $102,887.39. The pay for councillors rises by 1.7 per cent to $41,309,50. Mayor Richard Atwell, Coun. Karen Harper and Coun. Fred Haynes opposed the measure.

“As tempting as it is to say that we should freeze our own budgets, I’m thinking about people who come into this position after us,” said Plant. “I think it needs to be an incentivized system, where we don’t devalue our work.”

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