Staffing boost behind proposed RDOS tax increase

Early draft of budget doubles money for communications, adds specialist to implement safety audit recommendations

Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes with former MLAs Bill Barisoff and John Slater at the 2012 unveiling of plans for the Frank Venables Theatre. With the venue finally nearing completion

Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes with former MLAs Bill Barisoff and John Slater at the 2012 unveiling of plans for the Frank Venables Theatre. With the venue finally nearing completion

Taxpayers will have to come up with an extra 3.5 per cent for the regional district, according to the first draft of the local government’s 2014 budget that’s currently a work in progress.

“It’s really difficult to say what number I’m looking for, but I think it should be lower than that,” Mark Pendergraft, chairman of the board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, said of the proposed tax increase.

Residents in the 15 electoral areas and member municipalities of the RDOS pay different amounts of tax depending on which services they receive, so it’s difficult to estimate an average budget impact on property owners.

At this point, however, the total RDOS tax requisition is pegged to climb by $459,233 to $13.7 million in 2014, following the first round of budget discussions last month.

The increase could go even higher with proposed additions for communications, hiring a health and safety specialist, and increasing pay for volunteer firefighters.

For communications, the board agreed to double its budget to $50,000.

The money it spent last year allowed for the hiring of part-time communications officer Andrew Stuckey.

More cash would help meet an objective in the 2014 RDOS business plan to promote the organization by “bringing attention to our successes and good-news stories.”

“Granted, it’s nice to get the good news out, but (it’s important) just to get stuff out in a timely fashion,” explained Pendergraft, the director for rural Osoyoos.

The board also agreed to add human resources staff, including a health and safety specialist on a one-year term, to implement recommendations from a voluntary safety audit on which the RDOS scored poorly.

“I think we need to do some effort on it, yes,” said Pendergraft, noting the new hire “would start to work with some of the groups to get some of the things that were lacking, I guess, in place.”

The specialist, plus another half-time position in human resources, would cost $73,000.

Finally, the board was presented with a potential $287,494 annual increase to standardize pay scales across volunteer fire departments.

Pendergraft noted that honorariums for volunteers and wages for staff vary widely between the region’s fire halls, while members of two departments — Willowbrook and Tulameen — receive none.

The board asked for more options to phase in the changes necessary to level the playing field.

“It’s going to be a process. You’re not going to do it all in one year, but I think eventually it would be nice,” Pendergraft said.

He cautioned that nothing in the budget is finalized yet, and formal public consultations will begin in the new year.

At this point, the largest proposed requisition increase is a roughly 16 per cent hike for the Town of Oliver, which would see its contribution rise to about $1 million.

Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes said the proposed increase, which would cost the average homeowner about $70, is related to capital and operating costs of the newly restored  Frank Venables Theatre.

“It’s very preliminary stages, but there is going to be a hit,” said Hovanes.

Restoration of the theatre, expected to open Feb. 6, is a joint effort of the RDOS, Town of Oliver and the Okanagan Similkameen School District.