Giving homeowners in Pitt Meadows a break on taxes next year could mean cuts to services such as fire department training, road maintenance and city celebrations.
Council learned Tuesday that a zero tax increase, which residents petitioned for last year, would require departments to slash their budgets and could see jobs lost.
“I don’t recommend it,” said city finance director Mark Roberts, who estimates the city will need to raise its municipal tax rate by 3.3 per cent just to maintain services next year.
A one-per-cent tax increase in 2014 would generate $156,000 in revenue for the city.
The proposed preliminary tax increase of 3.3 per cent would mean an additional $56 to the average homeowner in Pitt Meadows, with a property valued at $369,046
The proposed 2014 budget includes $445,000 in reductions.
Even before Roberts began his presentation, the prospect of scaling back upset councillors.
“This is not fair,” said Coun. Tracy Miyashita. “Why should our staff go through these cuts while our partners don’t? It’s upsetting.”
Details for the 2014 budget won’t be finalized until January.
However, preliminary figures show that even a three-per-cent tax increase would mean some reductions, such as getting rid of staff recognition, volunteer gifts, the firefighters award dinner, road shoulder maintenance, filling pot holes and curbing overtime.
To achieve no tax increase would mean deeper cuts, including reducing annual training for volunteer firefighters, eliminating a vacant police officer position and stopping cash contributions the city makes to Pitt Meadows Day, the agricultural association and restorative justice group.
“I think Pitt Meadows has a long history of carrying a very lean organization,” said chief administrative officer Kim Grout.
The city has 64 full-time employees.
“We are not large. I would argue that staff here are delivering the same service, if not better, than what you get with a larger organization. We are exactly 64 people. It’s a big deal to try to cut back.”
Coun. Doug Bing characterized the overall theme of cutting as “a real downer,” especially on the eve of the city’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
“I find it very depressing. We Iive in a very great community. For us to make the very drastic cuts that were recommended … I find it unpalatable.”
After hearing what was could potentially be slashed, Coun. Miyashita told the room she wouldn’t want to work for the city.
“I apologize to staff. I feel if we support this proposed budget, we have really let you down as leaders and not created a good place to work,” she added.
“Not recognizing our staff, cutting our fire department, not maintaining our roads, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
Other councillors believed there are other areas that could be pared back.
Coun. Janice Elkerton told staff she was looking forward to business planning, when more details would be presented.
“It doesn’t mean I support everything [staff] picked out, either,” she said, adding that slashing volunteer appreciation and the fire department were cuts she did not favour.
Coun. Dave Murray wondered if the city could save by taking a closer look at the services it contracts out.
“It’s all kind of little things like that offer savings.”
Tom Murray, a senior who spearheaded the petition calling for a zero tax increase, still believes the city can achieve it without affecting essential services.
He attended Tuesday’s workshop and is still “digesting” the numbers.
“We have just started the process and I am looking forward to the upcoming round of budget meetings,” said Murray, who continues to collect signatures for a second petition pushing council for no tax increase in 2014.
“I know that other cities in B.C. have achieved a zero tax increase with little or no perceived decrease in services and I am convinced if we collectively focus on that goal, we will find creative ways to reach it.”
Mayor Deb Walters isn’t as optimistic.
She still believes a zero tax increase is unrealistic.
It’s pretty sobering when you see the numbers, said Walters.
“All the services we get for our dollar, it’s a pretty darn good deal. If you start taking away things, people aren’t going to be so happy. I never get anyone coming to me and saying can you take away things. Some of our biggest opponents on taxes are people who have asked for things and yet they still want zero taxes. I think that’s very frustrating.”
See related story: Pitt Meadows council nixes bid to cancel seven-per-cent wage hike
Residents and businesses are invited to participate in the 2014 budget process and are welcome to attend department business presentations on Dec. 4 between 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. and on Dec. 5 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Budget deliberations will be held Dec. 12 and 16 from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Individuals will have the opportunity to ask questions and provide comments to council at a meeting on Jan. 21 at 7 p.m.