Penticton city council passed a balanced budget for 2014 Wednesday, but it came at a cost.
The city’s holiday from overall tax increases came to an end with this budget, which included a two per cent tax hike, along with across the board cuts to grant requests, the loss of two full time firefighters, along with a range of other cost-cutting measures.
It’s the first increase in the city’s tax requirement council has authorised since 2011 and represents about an additional $500,000 for the city’s coffers, according to chief financial officer Colin Fisher, who explained that translates to approximately a $27 property tax increase for the average residential taxpayer.
The tax increase was passed four to three by council, with Couns. Helena Konanz, Andrew Jakubeit and John Vassilaki opposed
Mayor Garry Litke said he is comfortable with the increase and thinks the public will be as well.
“It’s a tax increase the public has been expecting and can tolerate,” he said. “I do not agree with the point of view we dip further into our reserves in order to balance the budget.”
In addition to the $500,000 generated by the tax increase, the city will also be drawing $185,000 from the general surplus reserve in order to balance the budget, though in past years, larger amounts have been drawn from reserves to keep the tax requirement from growing.
That general surplus reserve is currently about $5.4 million.
“Those reserves are not going to be sustainable over the long term if we continue to use them to balance our budget,” said Litke.
“We do need that in the event of a rainy day. It’s not great, but it’s adequate and to continue to deplete that reserve would be a mistake.”
Starting the final day of budget deliberations Wednesday, council still had to deal with a $935,000 shortfall in order to balance the budget, though that was down from $1.2 million at the start of the process. Through the course of the day, that was whittled down still further to $682,000.
Part of that savings come from not replacing two of the three firefighters who retired in 2013. Mike Richards, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1399, plead with council to not cut the positions, which he said would directly affect the safety of the community.
“The decision you are making today and days to come is not about increasing staff, it is about reducing firefighters, which directly impacts Penticton south of Duncan Avenue with a lower level of service roughly 50 per cent of the time,” said Richards. He added that the city’s own lawyer had pointed out that potential in firefighter response could increase the city’s liability.
“I note from your solicitor’s letter that in his opinion, there is risk,” said Richards. “Our experience is that insurers for homeowners will not hesitate to take action if there is any evidence the community failed in their duty to respond within a reasonable time.”
Richards also questioned where in the budget process the cut had come.
“The fire chief prepared a budget for this year showing significant savings compared to 2013. It included 32 firefighters. Somewhere through the process, his budget was changed,” he said. “Nowhere so far in your deliberations have we seen the question asked why he would go against advice and the standards that have been identified by reducing his budget by two firefighters.”
The city’s grant process was another area where council attempted to make headway, shaving 10 per cent off most of the grant requests during their Tuesday deliberations, attempting to bring the amount equal or below last year’s grants, though the list of organizations was longer than in 2013.
By the end of the day, council approved $699,000 in grants, up $18,000 from $651,000 in 2013.