Council delays increases to police, fire services

NANAIMO – City council approved a slate of budget decisions last week, leading to a 2.2-per cent tax increase.

Additions to the Nanaimo police force and construction of a $2.4-million fire hall are on hold after the latest wave of budget talks.

Nanaimo city council recently approved a list of projects and services for this year’s budget tallying a 2.2-per cent tax hike.

Nanaimo politicians have been reviewing 400 decisions with the potential to affect taxes as part of a new approach to financial planning and while no cuts were made, they did alter the list. The majority of changes were to protective services, which will see $86,000 in overtime added to fire services to ensure four-man crews respond to fire calls, and a one-year delay for a police hiring plan and construction of the No. 6 fire station.

With crime on the decline and a new top cop, some city politicians say it’s time for the city to review the necessity of adding to the force. They agree with holding off on $543,357 for additional police members for another year.

The fire hall also has a new chief and fire services model to consider, which supporters cited as the reason for bumping the $2.4-million Hammond Bay fire hall and $1.09 million in equipment, trucks and staffing by 12 months.

“I’d say council has done its job,” said Coun. George Anderson of this year’s budget decisions. “Council has looked at priorities for the community and said this is what [it] believes … we need in order to make sure our community is running smoothly.”

The City of Nanaimo has been undergoing a new financial approach this year that gives politicians a greater hand in building the budget. This month council members were given the choice of approving a list of decisions – for a total 2.8 per cent tax increase – or making changes that included adding their own priority expenses.

Council opted to write in new costs, from  increased per capita cultural funding and $50,000 for a new section of E&N Trail. But most of the changes were aimed at protective services, including the RCMP, whose contract is anticipated to take up  $20.7 million or approximately 17 per cent of this year’s operating budget.

The RCMP can’t expect the municipality to pay for both an increase in its contract, which is 8.3-per cent higher over 2012, and additional staff members, according to Coun. Bill McKay, who agrees with the need to hold off on costs. Anderson says it’s also time to have a discussion with the new officer in charge about whether the previously approved plan to hire more police officers is still necessary when crime rates are declining and residents seem to be getting effective service.

RCMP Supt. Mark Fisher was not available to comment on what a halt to the staffing plan will mean, but Mike Dietrich, the city’s manager of police support services, says the recent decision to shuffle expenses in the five-year plan will undoubtedly have an impact.

The postponement of the fire hall was also held off – a move Coun. Fred Pattje said has happened at least several times before. He disagrees with the move, pointing out that the city promotes development in the Hammond Bay area and fire services should go hand-in-hand with it. Other council members, however, say there should be discussions with the new fire chief and a review of the integrated risk management plan.

The next step in the financial process will be for city council to pass its financial bylaw, which has a May 15 deadline.