Langley City tax increase explained to skeptical audience
The mounting cost of police and fire service, City employees’ salary increases and the price of replacing aging infrastructure were among the main talking points when Langley City residents and municipal staff got together to go over the 2011 budget.
About 20 people attended the open house inside Langley Community Music School on Wednesday night as chief financial officer, Darrin Leite outlined the City’s proposed budget for the coming year, which includes a roughly three per cent tax increase, on average.
Unlike federal and provincial governments, municipalities cannot legally budget a deficit and so the City will need to raise $20 million in property taxes this year in addition to another $18 million, which it will collect through sewer, water, garbage and recycling fees, in order to cover its expenses, Leite explained.
Once again, the main cost driver for the City is wages, with staff in the final year of a five-year contract which gives them a four per cent wage increase this year.
The City also plans to add three new positions, including two part-time staff at City Hall and one full-time staff member at the operations centre, for a total increase of $110,640. With the hirings set to take place in July, the impact on the 2011 budget would be $55,320, with the full annual amount being included in the 2012 budget.
Meanwhile, the cost of policing is up $310,000 in Langley City. That accounts strictly for wage increases, not additional officers on the streets.
Asked why the City’s taxes are rising every year when it receives millions in revenue from Cascades Casino, Leite explained those funds, which are expected to be in the $6 million range again this year, can be used for capital projects and other one-time only expenditures.
Capital projects in the works for 2011 include putting $2 million toward the $6 million reconstruction of Timms Recreation Centre and an installment of just under $3 million toward the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor project, to which the City has committed more than $8 million.
“Had we not had casino proceeds, we would have had to borrow the money,” said Leite, adding that paying interest on loans effectively doubles the cost of any project.
To date, the City has used casino proceeds to purchase a fire engine, to buy the Langley Prairie site from the school district, pay off its water debt, make improvements to 208 Street and help build a new Fraser Highway bridge, among other projects.
“That’s $30 million added to the community that we wouldn’t have had,” Leite said.
With 2011 being an election year, the $45,000 cost of running an election will be taken from surplus funds, because it is considered a one-time expenditure.
Following the presentation, several people chastised the City, suggesting tax dollars are being spent recklessly.
“Expenditures have gone overboard,” said business property owner Kevin Granger-Brown.
He referred to a near 100 per cent increase in spending since 2004.
“My income doesn’t go up by 100 per cent. In my opinion there should be a decrease in property tax.
“It’s rampantly out of control, I couldn’t allow it in business. Municipalities should be run like a business.”
Citing figures published in a daily newspaper, another man said taxes in the City have risen 48 per cent over and above inflation.
“I’m paying $750 more in taxes than I should be paying. The bottom line is municipalities have been overspending.”
“You’re basically sucking people dry and we need to rein things in.”
Many of the budget items are simply out of the City’s control, including policing costs, overtime pay for firefighters who serve as first responders for all medical 911 calls, and CUPE salary increases, said CAO Francis Cheung.
When the municipal employees’ contract was negotiated in 2007, the economy was booming, Cheung said.
“We’ll be trying very hard to minimize wage increases.”
Some residents offered their own suggestions for cutting costs, including having garbage picked up every two weeks instead of weekly and canceling green waste pick up in the winter when there is little or nothing left out for collection.
Toward the end of the two-hour session, Mayor Peter Fassbender spoke, defending both the budget and City’s staff, amid suggestions the municipality is not running as lean as it could be.
He said he’s aware of many extra hours staff put in for which the City isn’t charged. And, he added, there is a demand from the public for a certain level of service.
“When the public has a question, a need or a complaint, they want it fixed or dealt with now,” he said.
Regarding the wage increases, Fassbender said the issue is being addressed, and the best thing the City can do — unlike some communities which have suggested they will opt out — is remain a part of the labour relations bureau which bargains with CUPE on behalf of Lower Mainland municipalities.
“We (Langley City) don’t have a lot of clout. The worst thing we can do is see (the bureau) fall apart, because then we don’t have a collective voice.
“The bureau is saying ‘zero, zero and zero.’
“It’s not that we’re oblivious or that it’s not being addressed. Nothing you’re saying is foreign to us,” he told the crowd.
“We’ve talked about (garbage) pick up every two weeks, but there are contracts in place right now.”
Council has gone over every item in the financial plan and made decisions about each one, he said.
Regarding having firefighters attend medical 911 calls, the mayor said: “All communities struggle with the first responder agreement put into place (with the province).”
But people who are in distress don’t care who comes, as long as someone comes quickly, he said.
In B.C. right now, ambulance service is simply inadequate, said Fassbender, referring to a car crash where firefighters arrived and stabilized the victim well before an ambulance, which had to come all the way from Hope, arrived.
“If there had been no firefighters on scene . . . they would have been dead,” he said.
“The model and delivery system needs to change. It’s not cost-efficient.”
Crime is also very different than it used to be, Fassbender said. Borders no longer mean anything, when it comes to drugs and gangs, and the division of costs between the federal and municipal governments needs to change, he said. Currently the federal government pays 10 per cent of policing costs as compared to the 40 per cent it used to pay, he said.
“We’re fighting hard to change the ratio of what we pay versus the feds.”