Debate gets heated as council spars over proposed cuts

NANAIMO – Rogue councillors criticized for flawed recommendations.

Finger pointing and verbal jabs signalled boiled-over frustration Monday night as Nanaimo city council sparred over proposed budget cuts and their potential impact on staffing and services.

Late last month, councillors Bill Bestwick, Jim Kipp and Bill McKay surprised their council colleagues with a vague list of cuts they recommended to reduce the city’s 2013 annual operating budget to a zero-per cent increase.

Those cutbacks included reducing protective services by $550,000; trimming $250,000 each from the Reservoir No. 1 and water treatment projects; reducing the parks, recreation and culture budget by $400,000 and eliminating $100,000 from a new spray park; reducing strategic relations department by $125,000 and reviewing efficiencies in the Nanaimo Economic Development Corporation; reducing $100,000 from the purchasing department; reducing corporate services by $100,000 and reducing management staff benefits by $75,000; cutting back the human resources department by $75,000 and reducing mayor, council and excluded staff base salaries by one per cent; and eliminating the $1.4 million Boxwood connector project.

All of the $2.2 million in proposed cuts were voted down, though council did vote to find $4,000 in savings from the now defunct athletic commission and another $50,000 from parks maintenance standards, which means grass and other regular maintenance will be done less frequently in local parks and play fields.

We’ve got a $175-million budget and we can’t find $2.2 million in efficiencies?” asked an exasperated Kipp. “The arguments against this aren’t real.”

Coun. George Anderson repeatedly pointed out flaws in the three councillors’ proposal, including cuts to the spray park, which is already 80 per cent complete, and the nixing of the Boxwood connector project, for which the city has already spent $2 million to purchase properties and another $200,000 for design work. That project is also paid for through development cost charges, not property taxes.

Another recommendation to redirect $250,000 from the sale of a city-owned property on Dufferin Crescent to the tax base was withdrawn because it is illegal.

Bestwick, Kipp and McKay were also criticized for being disruptive to the financial plan budget process after trying to amend their own motion to not include their proposed cuts for discussion, which other councillors and staff have spent the last two weeks studying.

A lot of staff and council’s time has been wasted,” said Coun. Diane Brennan, while Coun. Ted Greves noted “the proposed amendment changes everything council and staff were prepared to deal with tonight.”

Frustration on both sides grew with Kipp making a sarcastic reference to Anderson’s age – he’s 22. A five-minute recess was called by Mayor John Ruttan, which ended in Kipp apologizing to Anderson.

McKay said he was disappointed and perplexed that council could not realize any additional savings, blaming the system for hindering the ability to find savings late in the process.

“We’re well into it by January and can’t cut anything because contracts are already in place by then,” he said.

Brennan countered by saying council has already found significant savings, dropping the original residential property tax rate increase from 3.3 per cent to 2.9 per cent, which includes a new one-per cent increase over the next five years to help pay for future asset management and infrastructure needs.

We have worked to make cuts,” she said. “To minimize and belittle the work we’ve done over the past four months is not fair.”

The new $54,000 in reductions will require council to hold a special meeting tonight (May 9) to pass the first three readings of the tax rate bylaw so it can be adopted Monday (May 13) in advance of the legislated May 15 deadline.