In the end, Kelowna council made it look easy.
On Thursday, city council unanimously voted to accept a provisional budget for 2014 that will include a planned 2.49 per cent tax increase.
And the city’s mayor and councillors did it with little debate about specific items, wrapping up their scheduled day-long deliberations in just six hours.
“It’s not quite the two per cent (increase) I was looking for, but realistically, there wasn’t much that could be cut,” said Coun. Andre Blanleil known as one the most ardent fiscal conservatives on council
“I feel council has been pretty cautious when it comes to our budget. I don’t feel there is another city in Canada that gives as good a bang for the (tax) buck.”
The $289 million provisional budget will rely on a total of $107.7 million in tax revenue next year, with the rest coming from fees,charges, grants and money from city reserves.
Council headed into its annual budget deliberations with a staff recommendation of a 2.67 per cent tax increase.That figure would have added just over $45 to the average Kelowna homeowner’s tax bill. The new figure will drop that amount to $42.08, said city financial services director Keith Grayston.
Blanleil, a 20-year veteran of council, said he expects the total taxation demand will likely be reduced by the time council approves the final budget in May because the estimated new construction revenue the city uses to offset the annual tax hike always seems to be higher than anticipated. He predicted it could drop to nearer to 2.3 per cent.
Prior to the budget, the city said this year it faced challenges setting its financial plan for 2014 because expenditures were rising and revenues were not keeping pace. But it was determined to maintain services and, where possible, spend more for new needed services, equipment and personnel while keeping the tax increase as low as possible.
Despite the fact the proposed tax increase is higher than many workers pay hikes will likely be this year, Mayor Walter Gray made not apologies, saying he believes residents of his city are more interested in the level, and value, of service they receive from the city.
“If members of the public feel they are getting fair value , then they seem generally satisfied,” said Gray, adding he was “absolutely” happy with the outcome of the budget deliberations.
While the budget contained some big ticket items when it comes to new spending, such as a total of $8.5 million for a new Lakeshore Road bridge—a project that failed to attract a grant from the province—more than $2.6 million for road resurfacing, a $5.4 million revamp of the Queensway transit exchange, $500,000 for new sidewalks and $800,000 to buy a road right of way through the Rutland Centennial Park property which, in turn, will be used by the owners of the Rutland Centennial Park Hall to improve it, it was also lightened a little by the removal of a plan to spend $125,000 on a new McCulloch Road bridge and a saving of $100,000 of the $400,000 earmarked for upgrading the newly acquired land in Rutland Centennial Park. The savings for the park upgrade will come from money in a sports field reserve account.
The budget includes a $44 million capital program.
Council also added a few small items, including 30,000 for lights on the newly revamped Bernard Avenue that will be lit all-year round, not just at Christmas.
The city expects the new lights to be installed next summer and has already been told the Downtown Kelonwa Association will consider contributing as much as 30 per cent of the $55,000 total cost.
The city is also adding three more police officers this year, part of a multi-year plan to add more officers following the recommendations of a consultant in 2010 who said as many as 20 more officers are needed to police the city properly.
Last year, the city added 11 more officers and this year it added three more.
“I feel really happy with the way it went,” said Coun. Maxine DeHart of the budget deliberations.
DeHart, who is in the middle of her first term on council, said heading into the deliberations she had set her mind set on no more than a 2.5 per cent tax increase.
Council scrapped the McCulloch Road bridge in order to include money for transit service operations that will include service for Okanagan College students and still scrape in just under the 2.5 per cent increase mark.
Currently there is a push to have students approve a UPass transit pass system, similar to on already in use atUBC Okanagan and several council, including Gail Given, argued that if the city is going to invest as heavily as it has in transit upgrades across the city, it should not pass up an opportunity to get more riders on local buses.
Gray said this year, his council’s job was made much easier by the standing order given to department manager to only include funding requests for projects, services and personnel deemed absolutely necessary.