Nanaimo city councillors concluded their budgeting meetings by making a series of decisions that have driven the potential property tax increase up to 5.9 per cent for 2022.
At a special finance and audit committee meeting Friday, Nov. 19, councillors examined line items in the budget and 15 of their 17 recommendations resulted in the potential tax increase staying the same or rising.
Coun. Tyler Brown observed during the meeting that even though not all business cases in the budget were being recommended by all nine council members, the business cases were generally receiving enough votes to be recommended.
“On any given issue, it seems like you can probably get five votes to support a position – it’s going to be different five,” Brown said. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a reflection.”
The most significant budget increases related to policing, as the finance committee is recommending the addition of both a four-member RCMP bike team for downtown Nanaimo, and also 15 new civilian police staff positions over five years.
Coun. Ian Thorpe said city councillors hear over and over from citizens that public safety is their primary concern.
“As our city grows, I think we have to grow our police force with it to provide that safety and security for our citizens,” he said.
Mayor Leonard Krog suggested the resources are needed as police and other first responders are getting tired and stressed.
“Some of it relates to the ongoing mental health, addictions, brain injury and homelessness crisis that plagues our communities and takes up so much police time doing work that would be unnecessary if proper facilities and supportive housing and complex care units were available,” Krog said. “But we are where we are.”
Coun. Zeni Maartman wondered if the coming supportive housing in and around the downtown would lessen the need for police resources there, but Coun. Sheryl Armstrong pointed out there will still be calls for service at those facilities. Councillors also debated adding RCMP officers while a downtown security plan is still in the works, but Coun. Erin Hemmens said she “can’t imagine that the downtown safety plan is going to say we don’t need any more police officers.” Hemmens said she had the opportunity to ride along with the RCMP bike patrol recently and saw how it contributes to helping residents and business owners feel safer downtown.
Councillors voted unanimously to recommend adding the police support staff positions and voted 8-1 to recommend adding the bike team. Only Coun. Jim Turley was opposed, saying he would have preferred to see how adding the support staff impacted the police force’s workload before adding new officers.
Aside from the police positions, the highest-ticket recommendation was an aquatics plan that will include hiring more lifeguards. The full-implementation option passed 5-4 with councillors Brown, Turley, Don Bonner and Ben Geselbracht opposed, some of them voicing preference for a phased option.
Councillors also recommended two new financial services positions and two new parks and recreation positions. A manager of financial services and special projects was unanimously recommended, Brown opposed adding a technical support supervisor, Turley was opposed to adding a parks and trails supervisor, and Hemmens, Brown and Turley opposed adding a playground maintenance worker.
Also at the meeting, councillors voted unanimously to set aside $50,000 for the city’s share of putting on community events on National Indigenous Peoples Day and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Bonner calculated that the city spends 0.1 per cent of its entire budget on downtown events and said it should consider increasing that in the future “so that we can have some decent, cool parties.”
Bonner asked city staff if tax-base growth numbers in the new year might add revenue to the budget, but director of finance Laura Mercer replied that it’s unlikely in 2022. She also recommended against council using surplus money to lower the property tax increase, saying that would lead to a higher property tax increase in 2023.
“We knew it was going to be a tough year following COVID, and I wouldn’t be in support of using surplus to lower the tax rate,” said Hemmens. “I think the tax rate accurately reflects what the organization needs and that’s our job.”
The recommended 5.9-per cent property tax increase is scheduled to go before city council for three readings on Dec. 6.
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