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Council facing budget choices

There are ‘lots’ of possibilities to reduce city costs, from shuttering Beban Pool to cutting staff, says one Nanaimo city councillor heading into budget talks this week.

As part of a new approach to financial planning, Nanaimo city council has been given the chance to consider 400 projects this week that have the potential to affect property taxes.

According to city manager Ted Swabey, everything on the list is “all important” and part of capital planning to keep the city running, from contributions to asset management to road and sewer maintenance. The list also includes fire services equipment, police station staff and a new licence plate recognition system for parking that totals more than $97,000.

The decision list is in front of council this week and while staff members are giving politicians the option to pick and choose, they also warn there will be implications if projects and services are not funded. The majority of items funded by taxes go toward maintenance and renewal of city infrastructure and by cutting back dollars there will be an effect on service levels and increased maintenance costs, a staff report reads.

If the entire run of decision packages are approved, Nanaimo faces a 2.8-per cent tax hike. Without any further additions to the budget, there will be a 6.1-per cent drop in taxes.

Coun. Fred Pattje said while 2.8 per cent isn’t bad compared to other municipalities, council should still try every trick in the book to get the number closer to a cost-of-living increase.

He’s keeping his cost-saving pitches for budget talks, but said if council doesn’t want to reduce asset management – a one-per cent tax increase – there are few alternatives other than to cut services.

However, Coun. Bill McKay, who is aiming for no tax increase, questions if there are ways of reducing costs without slashing services, from looking at staff cuts and how protective services are paid for to consolidating city swim recreation at the Nanaimo Aquatic Centre to save on maintenance and energy costs.

The city has future costs to consider, including a new reservoir and regional district sewer treatment plant, and should look at tightening its belt now, he said.

“I want to look seriously at our swimming pools. Do we need two swimming pools in Nanaimo or should we consider a new modern pool down at the Nanaimo Aquatic Centre that replaces Beban,” he said, adding the pools cost every man, woman and child $45 a year to maintain.

“I think there’s lots of possibilities for reducing costs – the question is whether or not there’s a will amongst my colleagues to do so.”

The City of Nanaimo launched its new budget process last fall, which gives politicians a greater role in building the budget. Now, city council has been given the task of deciding where to draw the line on taxes.

The list of 400 decisions has been prioritized by city staff members, but there is the ability for councillors to add initiatives they feel are a priority. McKay wants to look at the size of the city’s workforce and ‘unbridled increases in funding to protective services.’ It could mean considering the fire services’ integrated risk management plan more seriously and giving the RCMP a firm budget.

“Whenever protective services seem to come to us we, for whatever reason, give them exactly what they are looking for,” he said. “Do we need a force as large as we have?”

The effect of decisions will be shown to council during day-long budget sessions. The first meeting happened Wednesday.

news@nanaimobulletin.com

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