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City budget open house set for Feb. 9

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Langley City taxpayers can expect to pay more for police and fire services as well as the salaries of unionized municipal employees in the coming year — nearly three per cent more on average.

On Monday night, the City presented its 2011 budget, which received first and second reading from council. It includes an average tax hike of 2.99 per cent to offset a net expenditure increase of just under $600,000 projected for the coming year.

If the budget passes as it is currently structured, the average homeowner will pay an additional 3.77 per cent or $92 for a detached home and 2.80 per cent or $34 for an average strata dwelling (condo or townhouse).

Businesses are looking at a larger increase, of $601 (4.92 per cent) on average, while taxes on light industrial property will rise by $1,207 (6.39 per cent).

Once again, the main drivers of the proposed tax increase are policing costs — which account for $9 million of the City's $38 million budget.

Salaries are another major component of the hike as the City's unionized staff are now entering the last year of a five-year contract negotiated in 2007, and will receive a four per cent pay increase in 2011.

Wages will account for $10 million — a $450,000 increase over last year.

Overtime pay within the fire department is also a significant cost pressure for the City, with call volumes having roughly doubled over the past several years. The fire department acts as first responder to medical emergencies which comprise roughly 70 per cent of the calls it receives.

The municipality is also looking at increased costs for garbage and recycling services as well as a rise in regional water and sewer rates in the coming year.

There are plans to add three new positions — two part-time and one full-time positions — at a total cost of $110,640.

Proceeds from Cascades Casino account for around $6 million in income for the City each year. However, because it is not considered a stable source of funding, that money is used for one-time capital expenditures, not for ongoing expenses, such as wages.

During Monday night's discussion, Councillor Dave Hall asked whether staff could be less conservative in their revenue projections for the year.

Year after year, said Hall, the City takes in more revenue than it has budgeted. Rather than place the surplus in a capital reserve, perhaps the money could be left in taxpayers' wallets, he suggested.

"Conceivably, in a year with $200,000 surplus, we could reduce taxes by one per cent."

Financial officer Darrin Leite explained the surplus would have to materialize year after year to avoid ending up in a deficit in the following year.

Hall also made reference to $100,000 in a tax stabilization fund.

"I consider that to be a contingency. What is it presently used for?" he asked.

Leite explained the money was placed in that fund years ago and serves to offset reductions in tax income when property owners successfully appeal their assessments.

The budget is set in January, based on current assessments, Leite explained. If assessments drop, it usually happens in April, after the year's budget has been adopted.

To date, the City has not had to draw on the fund, Leite said.

Council had asked staff to look at ways to reduce expenditures, but they were told the most that could be saved this year without cutting staff positions is $11,000.

The majority of that savings comes from issuing one newsletter per year instead of three. The public can access that information online at any time.

"We run a lean organization," said Langley CAO Francis Cheung.

"If we are going to make any more cuts, it will affect service."

In past years, the City has tried to cut costs by reducing such services as street sweeping of leaves in the fall, which led to clogged drains and complaints from residents. And at one time, the City hung flowered baskets and banners on every street pole, but in recent years, that number has been reduced by half.

"In terms of demand for services (City residents) expect similar to those in the Township and Surrey," said Cheung.

"Our challenge is to meet those expectations with the resources we have — to do more with less."

With little room to cut expenses, the City has looked for ways to raise more revenue. In addition to higher taxes, residents will pay $2 more for a dog licence, while reduced fines (those paid within a specified period) for parking violations in the City will climb from $15 to $25.

"It's very much a balancing act, with pressure points and demand for services," said Cheung.

"I think we've done a very good job this year."

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Langley City will host an open house on Wednedsday, Feb. 9 to present the municipality's proposed 2011 budget.

From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. the public is invited to the Langley Community Music School at 4899 207 St. to look over the City's proposed spending and tax rate increases for the coming year.

In addition to tonight's open house, members of the public will be invited to speak at a Committee of the Whole on Monday, Feb. 21, prior to council's regular meeting, at which it is scheduled to give third reading of the bylaw.

Final adoption is expected to happen on Monday, March 7.

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