It wasn’t zero. But it was close.
After nearly 10 hours of deliberation Tuesday, Kelowna city council delivered taxpayers a provisional budget that will see the city collect just 0.11 per cent more in tax this year then it did last year.
“I’m actually delighted,” said Mayor Walter Gray, who had said following November’s election that he thought it would be difficult to come in with a “zero per cent” budget this year .
But he praised the previous council for challenging city staff to show what a budget with no tax increase would look like. And he feels the staff succeeded.
“It’s been quite a day,” said Gray.
Noting that the last time the city had a budget with no tax increase was nearly 30 years ago, he said this year’s $332 million Kelowna budget reflects the tough economic times but does not sacrifice much needed capital projects.
Gray noted approved big-ticket items such as first phase of the $14 million revitalization of Bernard Avenue, slated to start in the fall, a new $8 million bridge on Lakeshore Road, four new police officers and a crime analyst for the RCMP and host of other, smaller priced projects maintain and add to municipal infrastructure and keep Kelowna a place locals can be proud of and outsiders want to visit.
The provisional budget started the day calling for a slight cut to the roughly $97 million to be collected in tax this year.
And while it relied heavily on city reserves and minor cuts across the board in virtually every department, for the most part the cuts were reductions in services as opposed to outright elimination of programs.
One project that was dumped however was the hugely unpopular plan to spend $200,000 on a large mural on an outside wall of the H20 Aquatic Centre in the Mission.
The original $100,000 budget was doubled after the public art committee said no bidders responded to the project at the original price.
But councillors rejected the plan citing the tough economic times.
“This is a belt-tighyening year,” said Coun. Luke Stack.
Stack noted the large number of reductions contained in this year’s budget, something that has not been seen in recent years.
“We would normally see four or five pink (reduction) pages (in the annual budget), but this year we probably saw 40 or 50,” he said.
Despite that, Stack said he was pleased not only with the outcome of the budget but also with how smoothly the council deliberations went.
With six new members of council this year, there was the possibility the deliberations would drag on well past the scheduled wrap up time of 6:45 p.m. But in the end, all the talk was wrapped up with 30 minutes to spare.
In their comments after, several councillors credited city staff with making that possible because they heeded city manager Ron Mattiussi’s message to look for all possible places to reduce departmental budgets in order to come in as close to zero as possible.
Halfway through the day, the city announced that for the 10th year in a row, Kelowna’s finance team had won an award from its North American peers for not only the budget as a financial document and how it is prepared, but also for the way the city communicates its impact to residents.
The 2011 budget provides local RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon with four more police offers and a crime analyst, positions he said are desperately needed at his detachment.
The city is awaiting a consultant’s report on just how many officers should be stationed here and it could recommend more.
McKinnon said he was pleased council agreed to the increase and said he will ask the force for higher ranking officers, such as corporals, because the additions needed here are supervisors.
“To be honest, we need the help,” said McKinnon.
But like other city departments, he noted he also had to make some cuts this year.
The force will reduce its travel budget, forgo replacing one the nine police cars its must replace and will not have reservists police the airport anymore. That work will be done by regular officers as part of their shift.
Another winner this years is the new Kelowna Sports Hall of Fame, which will receive $15,000 per year for the next three years to help establish itself in the city.
Heading into the budget, city staff recommended a tax cut of 0.04 per cent but the $180,000 extra in operating cost additions and the $41,000 cut in capital spending resulted in pushing the eventual increase to just over one-thenth of one per cent.
Gray noted the annual consumer price index rose here by 2.9 per cent this year, meaning the city went in to the budget knowing its costs would be higher. That he, said, made minute tax increase even more remarkable.
While the budget will not be finalized until May, the mayor said he did not expect the final number to increase very much, if at all. But there will be some more decisions for council to make.
In addition to the recommendations of the report on RCMP strength, the council will also have to decide on what it wants to do to make McKinley Road safer.
While $50,000 was put into the budget to look at ways of stopping vehicles from going into the Glenmore Ellison Irrigation District reservoir that runs along side the twisting and turning road, the actual work—widening the road to install a safety barrier—could cost as much as $300,000.
But Coun. Gerry Zimmermann appeared to sum up the feels of all when he said he was particularly impressed with the city staff and the “creativity” they showed in the reductions that were proposed.