A candidate for Pitt Meadows mayor has pledged to deliver no tax increase in 2015 should he be elected.
A former councillor, John Becker has scoured city budgets for 10 years and sat through many intense budget planning sessions.
“I’ve looked in detail at the 2014 budget and I feel quite confident that we can have a zero increase in city spending for 2015,” he said.
Becker has already booked Heritage Hall for a “Budget 101” town hall meeting, during which residents will be able to quiz council and staff about spending and share ideas.
Becker assures the town hall will take place on Feb. 19, should he win or lose.
“If I don’t get in, I will turn the format and my ideas over to whoever does get in,” said Becker.
He won’t ask to be reimbursed for the hall rental fee as long as his rivals honour the principles of empowering taxpayers with information.
“People may not want to vote for the messenger, but they do seem to like the message,” Becker added.
Seemingly endless tax increases have been an issue for Pitt Meadows residents for the several years.
The late Tom Murray spearheaded two petitions in the past two years, each calling for no residential tax increases.
More than a 1,000 people signed the petition each time, prompting city hall to prepare two budget scenarios for 2014 – one with no tax increase and a second with an increase of 1.9 per cent.
Becker ran on a platform of “zero-based budgeting” in 2011 and has discussed the city’s current financial landscape with three incumbent councillors – Janis Elkerton, Bruce Bell and David Murray, who have all endorsed him for mayor.
The incumbents believe a zero tax increase can be achieved for 2015 and tried to deliver one this year, but were out-voted by their colleagues.
Mike Stark, a Pitt Meadows resident who has attended budget planning sessions for the past six years and is seeking a seat on council, also believes a zero per cent property tax increase is possible.
During budget sessions last year, staff cautioned council against a zero increase in spending, warning there would be service cuts.
“I’ve watched this with some frustration. It requires leadership,” he said.
“It is my belief that we can do this certainly without staff and service cuts.”
If Pitt Meadows does hold the line on spending, it won’t be the first city in B.C. to do so. In 2014, the District of Mission delivered a zero per cent tax increase for the second time in three years.
This year, neighbouring Port Coquitlam gave its residents a tax decrease of .21 per cent.
With his proposed budget town hall meeting, Becker hopes to change the way Pitt Meadows consults its residents about the budget.
He suggest the current process, where a four-inch thick binder or online pdf document is prepared and then debated by council and staff over five days, is not open or transparent.
“It’s a great cure for insomnia,” Becker said of the process.
“To think of that as properly informing and empowering the citizens is ridiculous.”
Tracy Miyashita, who will be seeking a third term on council, welcomes the more open budgeting process but cautions others against making promises they may not be able to keep.
“Aiming for a zero is always a worthy goal,” said Miyashita, first elected in 2008.
“But I think what’s missing is context. It’s not wise for candidates to say right now, ‘Yes, we are going to do that at all costs.’ It’s saying it without having all the information.”
Miyashita notes the city can keep its portion of the property tax increase at zero, but has no control over other costs imposed by Metro Vancouver or the joint parks and leisure service.
“I think it’s so unfair when those services go up and in order to compensate and try to reach a zero our city departments have to compromises and do the tightening.”
She believes residents need to know what a zero will look like – what services or projects would be affected?
“To be honest, sometimes we debate over things that have a two dollar impact to the taxpayer per year,” said Miyashita, adding she is uncomfortable with the city not saving money in its reserves to replace infrastructure and equipment.
“To save somebody $2 now, but have a much higher increase later, that’s not fair to people,” she said.
“I’d rather have low increase right now but they are consistent.”
Mayoral candidate Michael Hayes commented after deadline because he was attending back to back meetings.
Hayes noted taxes are an ongoing issue not just to Pitt Meadows but all municipalities.
“It is especially true for municipalities that do not have a large industrial tax base or reap the rewards from a gaming facility,” he added.
“It is so important to look at delivering the best services and quality of life to our citizens with the least amount of impact on tax dollars. I note that the cost for municipalities to deliver services continues to escalate. We’re not only hearing from residents, but our local chamber is additionally calling on municipalities to lower business taxation. The key is to find a balance that is fair, while protecting our important reserves for future infrastructure repairs and replacement.”
Hayes promises to take a hard look at Pitt Meadows’ budget, and making the necessary cuts where need be.
It means looking closely at the “nice to haves” as opposed to the “must haves”, reducing spending wherever possible and delivering the best services to our community for least cost to our tax payers, he added.
Budget 101 Townhall
John Becker town hall will take place at 7 p.m. on Feb. 19 at Pitt Meadows Heritage Hall on Harris Road.