Penticton City Council spent most of their day on Dec. 16 going through the city’s operating budget, chipping away at a projected $1.9 million deficit, which would require a 7.3 per cent tax hike, to reduce it to something more palatable for taxpayers.
Palatable, in this case, is about a four per cent increase recommended by city manager Eric Sorensen to begin reducing the city’s $2.7 million structural deficit. While they made a dent in the $1.9 million, council still has a long way to go to reach that goal.
Cuts were made across the board, including $145,000 to the RCMP budget, equivalent to one full-time constable. The Penticton detachment is supposed to have 45 officers on staff, but Superintendent Kevin Hewco admitted that with retirements, transfers and other staff movement, the detachment has not reached that level in the 2.5 years he has been in charge.
Generally, he said, they have 43 or 44 members on staff at any time. But he noted, the cut doesn’t come without a cost.
“Last year, although we didn’t fill 45 positions, we had pressures. That salary dollar cushion that we all like to see, that was chewed up due to significant files,” said Hewco, referring to two murders that drew a lot of the detachment’s resources.
The cut to the RCMP, however, was offset by an unexpected increase to the budget for the South Okanagan Events Centre complex, which came in at $150,000 higher than expected.
Other cuts included halving the amount put aside for public art to $25,000, reducing the budget for operating and maintaining McLaren Arena by $50,000, $25,000 for city hall, $32,000 for facilities and reducing the Human Resources department’s training budget by $50,000.
Taken together, city controller Angela Campbell said the council’s cuts so far had reduced the deficit to $1.62 million, which would require a 6.24 per cent tax increase to cover.
City council did choose not to cut operations at the public library, which they considered closing on Sunday year-round to cut $11,000. Likewise, they decided not to close the Community Centre on statutory holidays, which would have saved another $16,000. About 400 to 600 people use the centre on stats, according to recreation director Lori Mullin.
That may change on Monday, when council meets again to finish going through the operations budget and begin work on grant requests.
Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said council may revisit some of the line items searching for more cuts. Likewise, he said council may revisit the concept of a light canopy over Main Street as part of the revitalization project.
The $523,000 cost for the canopy would come out of the city’s capital project budget, he pointed out, not the operating budget council is currently working through. It’s cost would also be partly offset by the grants the city has applied for to fund the Main Street revitalization.
“We are supposed to know this month what our grant level is. That is going to dictate the next level of conversations,” said Jakubeit, noting that the applications are for $2.7 million out of the $4.3-million total cost of the project.
“If we are getting less than anticipated grant levels, I think that would force council to relook at the project,” said Jakubeit. “Going through the budget process, there might be a sober second thought; with our aging infrastructure, is that going to get us the most bang for our buck?”
Jakubeit explained the city is looking at such a large increase because of years of low tax increases.
“We were cognizant of the community coming out of a recession and trying to minimize those effects and hopes that in subsequent years, there would be growth in revenue and population,” he said. “When you put off dealing some of the cost pressures, sooner or later you have to pay the piper. That growth hasn’t materialized, it’s still under one per cent and inflation is closer to two per cent.”