As Saanich council prepares to meet for its first time in 2018 Monday, upcoming budget talks and affordable housing appear as the overarching issues in what will be an election year.
Budget talks will unfold against an August 2017 council directive that asks staff to work out two budget cutting scenarios: one would see Saanich cut this year’s budget by one per cent, the second by 1.5 per cent.
While not firm, budget guidelines set the tone for the eventual give-and-take about specific items.
When council issued this directive, Paul Thorkelsson, chief administrative officer, warned at the time that cuts would come with service reductions.
“If council is concerned about making significant reductions to the overall budget in the community, that means reducing services,” he said. Previous efforts to reduce spending have added up to “whittling” around the edges, said Thorkelsson. “If council wants to reduce the budget, council has to consider reducing the services, full-stop, period, end of discussion,” he said.
Council, for the record, also considered a budget cut of 1.5 per cent during last year’s budget deliberations, but never followed through on this promise.
This said, comments from councillors suggest more firmness. Coun. Colin Plant said in August Saanich should review unrealized cuts. “I’m hoping that we would see also some other things,” he said. “What is most important for Saanich residents to realize is that their council is thinking about this very seriously.”
Or phrased differently, council must get serious about financial accountability, if it wants to maintain its credibility, and the byelection victory of Karen Harper — a well-known local advocate for financial accountability before joining council — suggests a favourable political climate for demonstrable financial restraint, if not trimming.
Comments from other members of council also point towards the same direction. Mayor Richard Atwell said in an interview that he considers “minimizing” future tax increases as one of the top priorities of 2018. Coun. Leif Wergeland also expressed his hope that Saanich would “continue to look for opportunities for Saanich to operate more efficiently and effectively.”
To appreciate the sensitivity of the budget issue, consider the following. Staff faced questions from councillors about this year’s property tax increase in August — just months after they had put the final touches on the 2017 budget that included a property tax increase of 3.53 per cent and months before B.C. Assessment released property assessment figures.
But if budget hawks are to prevail, they will have to do so against warnings from staff about service reductions and any potential public backlash as details of the 2018 budget emerge in what is after all an election year. Financial restraint might be acceptable in the abstract, but assumes a different dimension, once it become more concrete.
Reconciling theory with practice has cast a spotlight on the budget deliberation process. Last year, council held a total of at least eight sessions dealing with the financial plan over the months of February, March, and April. Yet councillors have consistently lamented a lack of public participation.
Coun. Vicki Sanders, who chairs, the finance, audit and personnel standing committee, said one her priorities in 2018 is to look at the way the public participates in the budget process.
If the 2018 budget appears as the most timely issue facing council, affordable housing is perhaps the most structural problem facing Saanich and along with the rest of the Greater Victoria area, and council is set to consider a number of related items.
“There are a number of actions on housing affordability that will come across the [council] table this year,” said Coun. Dean Murdock. “Among them is the review of secondary dwellings as a permitted option to create some additional housing for renters, and additional income for home buyers to go towards the high mortgage costs.”
In some ways, the questions of financial accountability and housing affordability speak to balancing act that awaits council. On one hand, it must satisfy an apparent public appetite for fiscal restraint, while demonstrate progress on a social-issue file that extends far beyond the mandate of this term.