Kelowna city staffers were faced with an onerous task as they built this year’s provisional budget.
“The previous council had asked us to look at what opportunities there might be to come up with a budget as close to zero as possible,” said the city finance director Keith Grayston.
With that in mind, they came up with a starter document that drops 2012 municipal property taxes by 0.04 per cent over last year. It means when Kelowna’s new council meets Jan. 17 to go over the hefty binder of facts and figures that make up the municipal budget, it will basically be starting from a point of taxation equilibrium—the owner of a typical $511,000 house would pay a $1,716 levy, which is about the same as last year.
While keeping the status quo doesn’t sound challenging, Grayston explained demands on city budgets have grown thanks to maintenance costs for a flurry of capital projects rolled out in recent years, while revenues dwindled in tandem as the private sector pulled back investment.
It left each department looking at where fees could be applied, or services cuts with “the least amount of impact.”
“But we didn’t want this to be a case of where we’ll reduce taxes and put it back on as fees. It wasn’t intended to shift where funding was coming from,” said Grayston.
Instead, department budgets were trimmed and plans for the year ahead altered.
“Through attrition we hope to cover off salary reductions,” he said. “For 2012, there were no existing positions lost, but maybe people would have been normally been hired in the spring…those positions will not be there. Some of the seasonal work has been reduced.”
There have also been cuts to things like street sweeping, which Grayston explained will merely bring Kelowna to a level that better matches other municipalities.
“We were doing services at a higher standard than other municipalities,” he said.
The H20 Centre also saw $100,000 stripped from its budget, which Grayston explained could be attributed to an unnecessary secondary water clarification system.
Transit, which has been heavily invested in through recent years, also took a $300,000 hit.
While there are some deep cuts, the document is far from set in stone.
When Mayor Walter Gray and his new council take a whack at balancing the demand for services against a desire to keep taxes low, they may decide to start putting currently slashed items back in the mix.
“At the end of the day, it’s difficult to know how we’ll end up, but I’m confident it will be the lowest increase in recent history, just because that’s where everybody’s mind is at,” said Gray.
“My colleagues on council, and the staff at City Hall, are aware the public is overtaxed at every turn and we are trying to demonstrate that frugality is the order of the day.”
It’s an ideal that fits in nicely with the “open-for-business” mantra he ran his recent mayoral election campaign on. But there may be a few deviations from the frugal path.
“There are a couple of major issues that will be deliberated,” he said.
“The whole matter of policing will be a major area to watch.”
Currently, RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon’s annual request for more officers is not on the books, although renovation plans for the building that houses the Mounties is.
“Another area where staff have taken a lot of money is improvement of transit,” said Gray.
“Transit is seen as important. In my nine (previous) years as mayor, which started 15 years ago, it wasn’t. But Kelowna is reaching the critical mass needed for a transit service, particularly with the large student population.”
As debate on those matters plays out, Gray’s council will strive for balance.
“People want services, but they don’t want tax increases,” he said.
“Where’s the middle ground? I just hope the middle ground is closer to zero.”