Saanich homeowners with an assessment around $600,000 will see a $94 hike in property taxes after council approved the 2015 budget last week.
The $244-million budget includes $136 million for operating expenses, $54 million for capital spending and $54 million for sewer and water services
A hotly debated decision of the April 21 vote centred around a $200,000 surplus from 2014. Council voted 5-4 to add the cash to its $5.6-million “accumulated surplus” fund – used for emergencies such as natural disaster response – rather than offset the residential property tax increase.
“It would have lowered the rate increase from 4.23 per cent to 3.99 per cent,” said Mayor Richard Atwell. “I would have liked to have seen it used to reduce taxes.”
Saanich’s residential tax increase is nearly double that of the City of Victoria’s proposed 2.2-per-cent increase. Victoria, however, benefitted from a boom in construction in 2014, which led in part to its $4.7-million surplus. Saanich Director of Finance Valla Tinney stressed early in the budgeting process that sluggish new development in 2014 would lead to more reliance on existing taxpayers this year.
Coun. Dean Murdock, who voted with the minority to use the surplus for tax relief, said while there’s wisdom in saving for emergency expenses, he was disappointed with council’s decision.
“Putting the money into a savings account when it could have been used to lighten the load on homeowners and lower the percentage increase in what’s already acknowledged as a slow growth year just didn’t add up,” Murdock said.
Coun. Vic Derman said he voted with the majority of council to bank the small surplus on the advice of Saanich’s director of finance.
Derman said the $200,000 surplus would have reduced property taxes by just a few dollars per average household.
“Of course I would like to get the taxes as low as possible – everybody would. But I don’t want to do it in a manner that my finance director tells me isn’t prudent,” he said.
Derman added that a recent resident survey noted Saanichites are happy with their level of municipal service and don’t wish to see those services reduced.
“So if we’re going to change anything, we can’t do it spur of the moment. We need to have a long-term process where we get the public feeling on what we can reduce and get them involved early on in the budgeting process.”
The single largest departmental increase in the 2015 budget came from the Saanich Police Department, whose budget will jump from $28.5 million to $30 million this year to cover new technology, fleet replacement and salaries. A request from Saanich PD to upgrade its front desk area was deferred to reduce this year’s budget request by about $83,000.
“We’ve got some complicated issues with our police department,” Atwell said. “They’ve essentially outgrown their current building. We have a decreasing crime rate and an increasing workforce, but police are doing more and more social work on a regular basis, and they’re doing it in the absence of services that could off-load some of that burden.”
Atwell hopes to look more closely at outside agency partnerships that could help lessen the onus on police to deal with mental health calls.
“That’s a big issue. We have police dealing with the same individuals over and over,” he said.
Coun. Fred Haynes said the District needs to find better ways to diversify its revenue base, something council has already identified as a priority.
“The other alternative is to concentrate on residential taxes or additional user fees on programs like our garden and kitchen scraps,” Haynes said. “I’d like to see us move away from that reliance.”
Haynes had hoped to convince a majority of councillors to increase grant amounts in the tight budget for the Greater Victoria Development Agency, Tourism Victoria and the Vancouver Island South Film and Media Commission, which Haynes said would pay dividends by getting more agencies to focus on attracting business to Saanich.
“I did get council to agree to invite the GVDA to come and present to council and identify how improving our support for that agency can improve Saanich’s economy,” Haynes said.
“There seems to be some feeling that support given to a regional agency needs to have a clearer statement of benefit to Saanich. But we did maintain our funding for these agencies.”
Council also approved up to $150,000 to be used to implement webcasting of council meetings. Atwell said the full amount may not be required, but council didn’t want to leave staff financially restricted so early on in the process.
“We’ll still receive a report back from staff on options available for webcasting,” Atwell said. “We want a service equal to the City of Victoria at least.”
Employee salaries account for about 60 per cent of the operating budget.
See the complete 2015 budget – including budget fact sheets from each department – online at saanich.ca/budget.