Council approves $16 million budget — including money for a tourism coordinator and a tax cut for Downie

By David F. Rooney

It took them almost 90 minutes to agree — sort of — but Council has given first and second reading to the City’s new 2011-2015 Financial Plan. The budget comes in at about $16 million and includes all kinds of things, including money for a tourism coordinator and a tax cut for Downie Sawmill.

But this was not some kind of budgetary love-in. The decisions were definitely not unanimous.

To quote the City’s own report to Council: “The city’s financial plan attempts to meet the following goals:

  1. Maintaining infrastructure (roads, water and sewer) by continuing to follow our reconstruction and rehabilitation programmes, subject to available funding;
  2. Ensuring that sufficient operating funds are available for snow removal;
  3. Achieveing carbon neutrality by investing in newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment according to our replacement programme as well as continuing to fund the Environmental Coordinator position;
  4. Increasing environmental stewardship by expanding the bear-proof garbage can programme;
  5. Continuing the support of social programmes in the community through the ongoing funding of the Social Coordinator position; and
  6. Ensuring that funding for recreational programmes is maintained.

“The foregoing is meant to provide examples of the City’s initiatives to meet its goals and is not an exhaustive list.”

That list most notably did not include funding for the tourism coordinator’s position at the Chamber of Commerce or a tax cut for Downie Timber. While Mayor David Raven and the rest of Council have heard much from the Chamber — both publicly and privately — over the last couple of months and sporadic comments in private from Downie, no move was made to mollify either of those parties until Councillor Tony Scarcella brought forward two motions to address those issues.

The first motion asked Council to reinstate $30,000 in funding for the tourism coordinator’s position for 2011 — and only 2011, pending negotiation of a new agreement between the City and the Chamber. The Chamber and Community Economic Development Director Alan Mason will report back to Council by the end of July. That position had been jointly funded by the City and the Columbia Shuswap Regional District through the Economic Opportunities Fund for the past 10 years. However, the funding was never intended to be permanent. That fact was overlooked and nothing was done by the Chamber or Council to remedy the situation. Consequently, the termination of funding sent ripples of shock and consternation through the business community.

That motion was passed then Scarcella presented his second motion. Bizarrely, it asked that Council “reduce the level of taxation of Downie -Selkirk to be consistent with the tax rate charged other small businesses in Revelstoke.” That attempt to equate a company with a $100 million payroll with a mom-and-pop business downtown was not only ludicrous, it prompted opposition from a number of councillors, including some otherwise sympathetic to the way Downie has been hammered by high taxes over the last number of years. As well, Scarcella at first asked that the reduction be pegged at $50,000. Other Councillors weighed with their own suggestions. The motion was eventually amended and ultimately dropped the reference to other small businesses and asked that the level of Class Four taxation (Downie-Selkirk being the only Class Four industry in town) be reduced by $37,500 for 2011.

That’s all good news for the Chamber and for Downie Sawmill, but it carries a significant price tag.

Both of those motions are being funded from the City’s 2010 surplus of $449,000. Okay… you may think that $30,000 for a tourism coordinator and a $37,500 reduction for Downie won’t really make that big a dent. By themselves they don’t. But Council also decided to boost its snow-removal budget to $1.258 million from $908,000. $332,000 of that increase is also coming from the surplus (the other $18,000 in the snow-removal budget increase is coming from the snow-removal reserve fund).

What all of this means is that these additions have drained the surplus — in effect, the City’s savings — to a dangerously low level. The municipal surplus will now contain a mere $37,000, something Finance Director Graham Inglis cautioned could leave the City vulnerable in case of an emergency.

That fact prompted Councillors Chris Johnston, Tony Scarcella and Antoinette Halberstadt to unsuccessfully oppose first and second reading of the financial plan. Phil Welock, Steve Bender and Peter Frew approved it. Mayor David Raven broke the deadlock. Johnston and Scarcella, joined by Councillor Phil Welock, also opposed — again unsuccessfully — adoption of the new tax regime that saw the City raise property taxes by four per cent while not increasing industrial or business taxes. Bender, Frew and Halberstadt approved of the tax regime. Mayor Raven again broke the tie voting in its favour.

“We’re seeing the tax payer as an infinite source of money,” Johnston said. “There must be a better way of doing things.”

But Mayor David Raven said “this budget is all about priorities” and noted that if he had a magic wand the City could do all kinds of things, including “building sidewalks along Nichol Road.”

Council still has to vote on third and final reading of the budget, tax rate and sewer rate and water regulation bylaws. The 2011-2015 Financial Plan must be approved by May 15.