Maple Ridge candidates about easing tax pain

Pitt Meadows mayoralty contender John Becker says he can create a zero-tax increase budget for residents, and do it without painful cuts ...

Pitt Meadows mayoralty contender John Becker says he can create a zero-tax increase budget for residents, and do it without painful cuts that would peeve residents.

A similar process in Maple Ridge, though, would be too painful, says the mayor, seeking a third term.

Zero-based budgets are not part of Ernie Daykin’s plan, if re-elected.

“If we do a zero-based budget, or a reduction, then we have to have those real hard discussions – what are we going to cut? What are we not going to deliver? What are we not going to build?”

Passing a budget without a property tax increase next year would be just passing costs down to residents in future years. The city has a responsibility to manage its finances without burdening future generations, he added.

However, another candidate for mayor, Graham Mowatt, says it would be worthwhile to present a zero-based budget.

“There are lot of inefficiencies that we could find in city hall in order to get to a zero-per-cent increase.”

He’d like to staff to do zero-based budgeting exercise and wants more public input into the process.

“It may turn out we can’t do it, but that’s my goal. We should at least take a look at it.”

Mowatt says trimming spending by between $2 million and $3 million would be enough to create no tax increase. A three-per-cent increase in property taxes works out to about $1.8 million in revenue.

If elected, Mowatt would also put a wage freeze on the non-union management staff within city hall that he says get annual two-per-cent raises.

Staff increases, though, are pegged to those that Canadian Union of Public Employees get, Daykin added.

Mowatt also opposes widening the Haney Bypass, as a further cost saver, and is also against building Fire Hall No. 4 on 112th Avenue at 240th Street.

“I’m against opening No. 4 fire hall. It’s just too much money. We just can’t afford the taxation for that at this time.”

Council, this year, re-authorized borrowing $7.4-million for that project, including equipment needed for a new fire hall.

The cost for that won’t come out of general revenues. Instead, money that’s accrued in a reserve fund will pay for the financing charges of that project.

Daykin disagrees with Mowatt’s claim that $2 million can be found in savings through cuts at city hall. To reach that amount of savings would mean cutting services, such as library or leisure service hours, or cutting back on installing ramps on the corners of sidewalks to make it easier for the disabled to get around or not installing crosswalk beepers that makes it easier for blind people to cross streets. “We could – not do that.”

Daykin said he’d be willing to ask staff to do a zero-based budget if an initiative from most on council supported that.

“I’d be prepared to have those discussions, if the majority wants.”

But the feedback he gets from the public is for more services and more assets to be built. And that costs money.

He agreed that the cost of providing services and infrastructure in areas that are already built up with some population density is cheaper than doing the same in outlying suburbs. But both require spending and upgrades and said the new 232nd Street bridge over the North Alouette River leading to Silver Valley would have had to been replaced regardless of whether there were new houses on the mountainside.

Michael Morden, also challenging for the mayor’s chair, says it’s difficult not to increase property taxes each year.

“Zero tax [increase], I would say that would be difficult to achieve.”

But during the spring’s budgeting process, council made three successive cuts to the tax rate before eventually paring it down to 3.47 per cent for 2014, when utility rates and property taxes are combined.

But more fat can be trimmed, he added.

“That’s not enough in my mind. We have to go further.”

Morden, responding to criticism that he supports a tax increase, pointed out that he was chair of council’s finance committee and said his job was to help find consensus on the budget. As result, he had to vote on those proposals.

“We have successfully reduced taxes from the 5.8-per-cent increase, approved by previous councils for the past decade, down to just three per cent. This is a good start. But there isn’t much room for greater future decreases unless we make bolder decisions to reduce spending,” Morden says on his website.

He also wants to put in performance measurements at city hall to identify any savings and proposes expanding the use of private security in Maple Ridge’s downtown as a way of saving police costs.

But Morden doesn’t want to cut existing RCMP or fire services.

“Public safety is very important.”

Neither budget can be cut, he says.

 

  • While council hasn’t looked a zero-based budget, it did consider some scenarios sketched out by staff during a financial plan overview this spring.
  • No increase in the RCMP police contract actually would mean the cutting of six police officers from the Ridge Meadows detachment. Council could save about $145,000 by not hiring a new cop this year, but staff don’t recommend that because it makes it more difficult to keep up with the growth of Maple Ridge’s population later.
  • The increases Maple Ridge will have to pay for RCMP pension increases will jump by almost a million a year alone ($925,000) says the report.
  • Keeping the fire department at a zero-per-cent increase, would mean pulling one fire truck out of service. That would save about $400,000 a year but isn’t recommended because response times would increase. Regular increases in wages and benefits, which can’t be avoided, account for most of the additional $400,000.
  • The city can also not put in $875,000 into its infrastructure fund, which pays for upgrading streets and sewers, but that could lead to larger costs and more expensive repairs later.
  • Another $150,000 could be saved by rejecting an increase for the parks and leisure services plan – but that would delay its implementation.
  • Another $625,000 could saved by not planning for increasing labour costs, but that could lead to layoffs, walkouts by city employees, or service cuts.

The financial plan overview says most expense items in the city’s budget don’t change, year over year. With the effects of inflation, it actually means the city is cutting its spending.