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Kelowna council approves budget in record time

Kelowna city council set a speed record with its annual budget deliberations Thursday.

It took council just three hours and 19 minutes to approve the $357 million 2013 provisional city budget—which is expected to include a 2.58 per cent tax increase and $103 million collected in taxation, as well $89.7 million in capital spending.

The hike will mean the owner of an average priced house in the city (a property value of $454,175 according to the B.C. Assessment authority) will pay $1,686.40 in municipal taxes next year.

That’s an in increase of $42.41 over what the owner paid in municipal taxes this year.

The total amount on the property tax notice will likely be higher, however, because the city has to collect taxes for other jurisdictions such as the school district and regional district as well.

Mayor Walter Gray praised city staff for delivering a budget to council that passed with little discussion because, he said, it was clear staff knew what council wanted.

“Obviously there was a common mind and a common purpose between the elected officials and the staff,” said Gray.

He said one of the reasons for so little discussion was that city staff kept council appraised regularly during the months of work formulating the budget and they knew what would be approved.

Earlier in the week, when asked about the budget and if council would likely try to lower the proposed 2.54 per cent increase, Gray said he believed there was little “wiggle room” for council to make changes.

He added there was nothing that could be cut out of the budget without affecting the level of service currently provided by the city.

The 2013 proposed tax increase—which could change slightly between now and the final budget in May if new construction revenues come in higher than the $1.1 million anticipated—will be bigger than the 1.1 per cent hike this year.

But that is in large part because of last year’s decision to add more RCMP officers to the city detachment this year and next year, as well as in 2014 and 2015. The additional officers, as well as other increased policing costs,  accounted for one per cent of the 2.58 per cent tax increase slated for 2013.

Kelowna RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon said seven of the 10 officers who were to start this year are now in place and the remaining three officers will arrive shortly.

The 2013 hires will be added next year and bring the total number of officers in the city detachment to 162.

Another factor that added to the increase was the 4.6 per cent increase to the cost of policing here that the city must absorb as a result of the recent RCMP contract negotiated between the provincial and federal governments.

It increased the amount the city must pay out per year for each police officer by $6,500, said McKinnon.

Both he and Coun. Andre Blanleil voiced their frustration at what they called last-minute changes that affect the annual city budget.

In a move to keep the annual tax hike down, the city also tinkered with the formula of its annual pay-as-you-go capital funding program, which uses revenue from new construction to help pay for city infrastructure.

But one councillor, Gail Given, sounded a warning about the move, saying it could hurt the city if it is repeated in future. “We need to be very careful doing that,” she said.

The pay-as-you-go program has been very successful in helping Kelowna maintain its infrastructure without burdening taxpayers with huge annual tax hikes.

Given said without the change made for the 2013 budget, property owners could have been looking at a four per cent tax increase next year instead of one just over half that size.

Heading into the annual budget deliberation session Thursday at City Hall, council was looking at a proposed 2.54 per cent tax increase but raised that figure slightly by adding a handful of small items.

They included new workshop equipment for the fire department ($10,000), planters for the uptown Rutland area ($6,000), two audible pedestrian-activated road crossing signals ($15,000), improvements to the Little Travellers’ Safety Village which teachers children about road safety ($3,000) and $5,000 to send team officials to the International Children’s Games with the young athletes who represent the city.

But those projects are dwarfed by the millions the city plans to spend on big projects like the Bernard Avenue revitalization project in the coming year, as well as new facilities at the Glenmore landfill, a new transit exchange at Okanagan College, an ultraviolet water treatment booster station, an expansion of Stuart Park downtown, a new parkade by Memorial Arena and an expansion of the existing Library parkade, as well as planning and design work for a new RCMP station and replacement Lakeshore Bridge.

The city also plans to build a continuation of the Rails with Trails pathway that currently links downtown with Spall Road, near the Apple Bowl. The new piece will link Spall with Dilworth and run alongside the existing railroad track.

City staff said they have the money to finish the path with a crushed gravel surface and are pursuing provincial grants to provide a paved surface.

While there was little discussion about the big-ticket items, council spent an inordinate amount of time discussing two small items—a proposed cricket batting cage at Parkinson Recreation Centre that the local cricket club is offering to pay half the cost of, and the money to send team officials to the upcoming International Children’s Games. The city contribution to the batting cage, anticipated to be around $7,000, would come out of council contingency and not taxation and the International Children’s Games contribution would be a one-time payment of $5,000.

According to figures released by the city, municipal taxes and charges in Kelowna near the bottom of a list of taxes and charges of 17 B.C. municipalities with more than 75,000 residents.

 

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