Tough budget choices loom for Victoria council

Coun. Lisa Helps reminds residents that dire recommendations in consultant’s report are not cast in stone

City of Victoria councillors face tough cost-cutting decisions when they reconvene this fall, now that a long-awaited consultant’s report on city operations is in their hands.

Last week, the city revealed a jobs shakeup intended to streamline communication between departments and bring similar positions under one roof.

The changes are in response to an organizational review and service delivery analysis done by Maximus Canada, which in its June 19 report found Victoria provides relatively good value for money compared to Nanaimo, Burnaby, Kamloops and Kelowna.

The report, released publicly last week, also recommends the city cut service costs by reducing or eliminating heritage grants, forcing homeowners to maintain their own boulevards and implementing a “tourism tax” to help pay for city gardens and hanging baskets; the report fails to elaborate on how to implement such a levy on visitors.

Coun. Lisa Helps stressed the consultant’s recommendations serve as a starting point for discussion and said council will “put a values filter on the report” to decide at upcoming meetings what works best for Victoria.

“It was well worth waiting for,” said Helps, who is spearheading efforts to create an operating budget that caps property tax increases to 3.25 per cent annually through 2015.

“It’s certainly my hope to finish (the budgeting) process this fall. We need to provide certainty as soon as we can and with as much clarity as we can.”

The issue most likely to draw public ire this fall is the fate of Crystal Pool, a 42-year-old facility in need of a major retrofit. The consultant’s report states the rec centre costs Victoria $1.2 million and is used regularly by only 4,750 people each year.

“The city needs to consider if it can afford to continue providing such an expensive service used by less than five per cent of the population,” the report reads.

Helps said staff are already well under way developing a public engagement process for Crystal Pool, and a final report is expected to come before council next June before councillors decide its fate. She stressed council has not made up its mind on the matter.

Coun. Chris Coleman said the report shows Victoria has already done a good job of going after “low-hanging fruit” to cut costs, such as by redesigning its garbage collection processes.

He was optimistic council will be able to tackle the city’s budgetary constraints, but said municipalities across Canada are suffering from a similar plight that stems from an antiquated tax structure.

“For every tax dollar you pay, 51 cents goes to the federal government, 41 cents to provincial coffers and eight cents to the municipalities,” Coleman said. “That system was set up 146 years ago. … Now, 91 per cent of people live in urban or suburban contexts.”

Coleman said the downloading of service costs from higher levels of government will be addressed once again at the upcoming Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in September.

Councillors next convene Aug. 22 for a governance and priorities committee meeting.