The financial staff at Pitt Meadows city hall say the city requires a residential tax increase of 2.85 per cent in 2015 in order to maintain the current levels of service.
But council candidates say no increase is still possible.
Director of financial services Mark Roberts presented a financial plan workshop on last week. He advised councillors that tax rates in Pitt Meadows remain comparatively low, and that the proposed 2.85 per cent increase would cost the average household an additional $48.50 for 2015. The average household in Pitt Meadows has an assessed value of $450,000.
One of Roberts’ key messages in the workshop was that council should avoid establishing a tax increase “without service level context.
“Desired service levels should dictate the appropriate tax increase,” he said.
But his advice appeared to have done little to sway candidates who are running on a pre-set tax platform of zero tax increase.
Mayoralty candidate John Becker said he has made a commitment to taxpayers to have a zero tax increase, and is sticking to it.
However, he declined to say what he would cut from the budget.
Becker said Tuesday’s meeting marked his personal involvement in his 11th budget planning session, and he is confident that more detailed investigation will reveal areas where spending can be trimmed – without job losses or cuts to core services.
“This is a stretch goal that I am committed to,” he said.
“Taxation and spending are the hot-button issue,” he added, noting that door knocking on the campaign trail has made him better appreciate “people’s anger at what they see as bad spending.”
Mayoralty candidate Michael Hayes said the 2.85 per cent increase is a reasonable starting point, and there may be room to improve on that rate for taxpayers.
“I think it’s realistic,” said Hayes. “We certainly need to look more at it. It’s just an initial presentation, so we have to drill down on it, to find out more. We’ll see what happens, but it’s a very good beginning.”
And the third mayoralty candidate, Gary Paller, said running the municipality should be done using the same principles as a person runs the personal finances – by not spending money they don’t have. His approach is to not incur debt, so as not to service a debt load, and look for ways to trim fat.
“It’s the same as the way you run your household.”
However, he said zero tax increases is not a sustainable approach.
“You can’t keep up with the inflation rate with zero taxes,” said Paller. “But you can maintain a very low tax structure.”
Coun. David Murray said the last council was not vigilant enough in tax cutting, not even willing to axe line items that Roberts had identified as “no risk,” if they were cut.
“We were basically mandated by Tom Murray’s petition. We had 2,000 people sign that petition, so we had a clear message – we had to do our due diligence to try and lower the taxes as best we could.”
He pointed out that Port Coquitlam was able to cut taxes, with no service cuts, and no appreciable job loss. All it takes, he said, is line-by-line analysis of the budget by councillors and staff.
“You have to roll up your sleeves and get it done,” said Dave Murray. “Port Coquitlam did it, and I think that we could certainly – at least for one year – offer a zero.”
Coun. Bruce Bell also agreed the zero tax increase is a realistic goal.
“There’s lots of projects in there [the budget] that cost money. It’s prioritizing the projects and how important are they, and what do they cost.
“I’d be surprised if it’s 2.85,” he said.
Coun. Gwen O’Connell said it will be difficult for the city to bring in a zero per cent budget, because infrastructure needs to be replaced. Pumps on the Katzie Slough are nearing the end of their life.
“Just like at home, you have to have some money in the bank,” she said.
She would not support tax increases for new services.
O’Connell said the presentation was excellent, and 2.85 per cent is a good starting point.
“The people I talk to are realists.”
Staff advised against cuts at city hall.
“City departments have experienced multi-year budget cuts and cannot sustain further budget cuts without impacting service levels,” saRoberts said in his workshop, noting that city hall has a “very small labour pool,” of just 60 full-time equivalent employees.
The report also noted that Pitt Meadows has among the lowest taxes in the Metro region with $2,847 the average charge for taxes and utilities. The highest was West Vancouver ($4,237), and the only lower cities were Langley City (2,730) and Surrey (2,774). Maple Ridge ($2,935) is sixth lowest on the list of 17 municipalities.
Councillors and candidates praised Roberts for his report, and Coun. Janis Elkerton said it contains the most detail she has seen in her time on council.
By the numbers
• Tax increases in Pitt Meadows have averaged $71 per year between 2004 and 2014.
• Pitt Meadows will generate $16.2 million in tax revenue – $10 million is from residential taxes, $4.3 million from business, $900,000 from industry, and $464,000 from farms.
• A one per cent increase in taxes will generate $159,600 in 2015.
• The city manages assets valued at $173 million.
• The city has reserves totaling $19.4 million.
• The largest part of the operating budget, 21 per cent, goes to capital reserves. Police is next at 20 per cent, followed by salaries and wages at 19 per cent.
• Growth of 1.25 per cent will generate an estimated $200,000 in 2015.
The next steps in Pitt Meadows budget planning:
• Nov. 27 – new council orientation and finance concepts;
• Dec. 10/11 – business plan presentations and public input;
• Jan. 21/22 – budget deliberations by council and public input;
• Feb. 17 – final presentation to council and public input, financial plan bylaw gets three readings;
• Mar. 3 – financial plan bylaw adoption.
All presentation will be advertised and are open for public attendance.
With just over two weeks left before the Nov. 15 municipal elections, there are some key dates for Pitt Meadows voters to observe.
There will be a second all-candidates meeting on Thursday, from 7-9 p.m., at the Pitt Meadows Heritage Hall (12460 Harris Rd.), hosted by the Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows Chamber of Commerce.
The coming week will also see the first advance voting opportunities:
Nov. 5, Pitt Meadows City Hall, 12007 Harris Rd., 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nov. 7, Pitt Meadows City Hall, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nov. 8, South Bonson Community Centre, 10932 Barnston View Rd., 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Nov. 9, South Bonson Community Centre, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
• For more information see www.pittmeadows.bc.ca.