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Hall all alone in opposition to Langley City’s financial plan

The City of Langley’s 2012-16 financial plan passed final reading on Monday night, with only Councillor Dave Hall opposed.

On Feb. 20, Hall had tried and failed to bring up a number of budget items for discussion at the council table.

As he has done in previous years,  Hall presented a number of motions during third reading of the proposed budget, aimed at cutting costs and reducing property tax increases. But Hall failed to find any support among his colleagues at the council table, with only one of nine motions he presented receiving a seconder, to open it for discussion.

In the silence that followed each of his motions, Hall could be heard to remark, “Council has no interest there in reducing taxes.”

Much of the councillor’s argument centred on the fact the municipality has seen taxes rise, year after year, despite annual surpluses that result when expenses are overestimated and/or income is underestimated.

Over the past two fiscal years, an extra $820,000 has been accrued, noted Hall, and as is City policy, that money is destined for capital reserves, to be used for such projects as the replacement of aging infrastructure.

But Hall argued that there are a number of ways those funds could be redistributed to ease the burden on City taxpayers. It’s a pinch he feels himself, he noted. Since he moved to Langley City in 1994, Hall’s own property taxes have climbed by nearly $1,400.

“That’s a 68 per cent increase in 18 years and 43 per cent in the last 10,” he said.

Among the motions Hall presented was that the 2011 budget surplus of $560,000, and all subsequent surpluses, be allocated to future tax relief (25 per cent), operations budget stabilization (50 per cent) and capital reserves/capital projects (25 per cent).

It wasn’t until he got onto the subject of council salaries that Hall was given a chance to speak. He moved that council set aside its current policy and “only accept a pay raise that matches the rate of inflation of two per cent.”

Hall’s preamble described the mayor’s position as full-time and councillors’ as part-time, and Councillor Rosemary Wallace opened the motion for discussion when she seconded it in order to clarify that she does not consider herself a “part-time” councillor.

“I took this position knowing I would be a councillor 24 hours,” said Wallace.

Hall quickly jumped on the opportunity to expand on his point, saying that council tried to get away from the “agonizing process” of having to vote itself a raise — or not — by going to a formula in which council members’ pay is tied to the mayor’s. In turn the mayor’s salary is based on that of surrounding municipalities. It is a practice that some have argued creates a self-perpetuating cycle of skyrocketing pay raises.

Council members will receive a nearly four and a half per cent increase this year.

Council has a responsibility, Hall said, to set an example by doing its part to hold tax increases to a minimum.

Despite the lack of support he received at the meeting, Councillor Hall’s motions “are not being dismissed out of hand, at all,” insisted City Mayor Peter Fassbender.

Staff and council spend months talking about the budget before it is passed, during which time Hall’s suggestions are brought to the table, time and again, for discussion, Fassbender said.

“His ideas have been talked about on many occasions. Staff have bent over backward to provide answers,” said Fassbender.

“If six other people don’t accept what you’re saying . . . well, he can continue to believe what he wants. If he’s not prepared to accept the answers, that’s his choice.

“Is he the only one who understands the finances of the City? Is he the only one with creative solutions? I suspect he’s not.”

Hall’s suggestion that three-quarters of any budget surplus be put toward tax relief and operations was turned down, Fassbender said, because it is common practise in all Canadian municipalities to direct any surplus money into a capital fund.

It’s simply prudent financial planning to have savings, he said, so that the municipality does not have to borrow to pay for unexpected repairs.

Fassbender also defended the 4.47 per cent increase in pay council members will receive this year, noting that unlike provincial and federal politicians, municipal representatives do not receive a pension.

“You have to look at the whole picture, look at the effort everyone puts in. Do they deserve increases? I happen to think they do.

“I would ask the people who are complaining, ‘Are you willing to put in the hours?’

“It’s a no-win situation for people who determine their own salaries from public dollars.”

Overall, staff have done a good job of keeping the municipal portion of the tax increase down, the mayor said.

“I still think we’ll have one of the lower increases in Metro Vancouver. We want more, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

Homeowners are looking at an average 2.77 per cent increase for a single family dwelling and 1.2 per cent increase for a strata dwelling (condo or townhouse). Meanwhile, business owners are facing a 3.75 per cent light industrial properties will be levied a 3.96 per cent increase.

This is all to offset a net expenditure increase of nearly $390,000.

There will also be rate increases for Metro Vancouver’s sewer and water services, and garbage fees.

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