Higher than anticipated tax revenues and some cuts helped Saanich council trim the final tax bill.

Higher than anticipated tax revenues and some cuts helped Saanich council trim the final tax bill.

Higher revenues and cuts add to lower tax bill in Saanich

Last-minute disagreements over the police budget defined the final round of deliberations as Saanich prepares to ratify the 2018 municipal budget.

At issue was the question of whether Saanich should add less than $60,000 to a budget of $288 million to help save funding for the Block Watch program, a community policing program designed to build safer neighbourhoods. Coun. Colin Plant had proposed the additional funding, which he said would have added 0.0002083 per cent to the budget. The funding would have also seen the tax hike rise to 3.12 from 3.07 per cent. Budget discussions started in late February with a proposed increase of 4.17 per cent.

The 3.07 per cent increase means owners of an average-assessed home of $878,000 will see their property tax bills rise $77, down from $105 when budget discussions started.

Plant said he was willing to support this increase because he had received information that future police budgets would ease off on higher funding requests, while needing the funding now to fill three civilian positions.

Saanich Police had earlier resubmitted its original request for 4.63 per cent in additional funding. While this submission also signalled flexibility, the police board made it clear that it was not prepared to accept the lower figures that Saanich council had floated during earlier deliberations. At one stage, council asked the police board to revise its requested budget increase to 3.5 per cent before softening its stance by signalling support for a status quo budget with an increase of 3.81 per cent, the figure that ultimately ended up in the budget.

While support for this figure was unanimous, Mayor Richard Atwell and Coun. Leif Wergeland joined Plant in a failed effort to include funding for a paid Block Watch position. This vote happened against the backdrop of an implied threat by Coun. Karen Harper that she would not vote for the budget if council were to start adding items back into the budget.

“There was a plea that we all hang together, so that is one of the issues for me,” she said.

She also pointed out that council had earlier granted police three one-time requests from reserves totalling $550,000. This figure included $70,000 to save one of the three necessary jobs which Saanich Police Chief Bob Downie said would be lost under a status quo budget.

While these requests do not impact the tax rate, they represent one-time-only forms of spending.

In fact, Downie made it clear to councillors that the police would ask council to fund any lost positions during next year’s budget cycle.

So what accounted for the lower figure? A staff document shows the most significant change happened early during budget discussions when councillors reduced the reserve for IT infrastructure improvements by $500,000 after staff had told them that withholding this money would not have significant impacts.

This move, coupled with miscellaneous cuts, shaved off 0.45 per cent off the tax hike. Additional business revenues from local business taxes ($365,000) and $100,000 from BC Hydro reduced the increase by another 0.4 per cent.

Cuts to the police budget amounted to savings of 0.23 per cent ($265,580). Looking at the raw numbers, this move had less of an impact than other measures. But it was likely the most sensitive one, because it sees the Saanich Police Department absorb personnel cuts, while cuts by the municipality do not impact staffing levels.

Council also topped up its strategic initiative fund to $1 million by adding some $380,000 from reserves. Contrary to some claims, Plant said it is not a “slush-fund” for council.

“I describe it [as a fund] for emergent issues, and it has provided us the opportunity to do things, that we need to do.”

Coun. Fred Haynes agreed, pointing out various programs that have benefited from the fund. Future benefactors include the search for legislation replacing the Environmental Development Permit Area bylaw, he said.

Council allocated remaining reserves to its facilities reserve fund in anticipation of future infrastructure needs, likely topped by replacing Saanich’s aging public works yard. This move also precluded Saanich from using any of its surplus towards lessening the tax hike.