Nanaimo City Hall. (News Bulletin file photo)

Nanaimo city council starts talking about potential budget items for next year

Councillors ask for business cases for mobile crisis response unit, manager of housing

Now that most citizens have paid their taxes for 2020, the City of Nanaimo is getting started on budgeting tax dollars for 2021.

City councillors pitched spending ideas at a finance and audit meeting Wednesday, asking staff to look at preparing business cases for a mobile crisis response unit for wellness checks, a manager of housing and an indigenous engagement specialist.

After a 4.5-per cent tax increase in 2020, the city is working with a 3.0-per cent tax increase as a starting point for 2021 budgeting.

The tax requisition so far would cover a $2.11-million increase for staff wages and benefits including a new manager of facility assets, a $1.33-million increase to the city’s RCMP contract including three new officers, and $1.01 million for asset management. It also includes potential debt servicing for $8.8 million in waterfront walkway work.

Director of finance Laura Mercer told councillors that 82 per cent of residents have already paid their 2020 property taxes, so she doesn’t anticipate the city will have cash flow needs. However, staff anticipates that COVID-19 will impact revenues and reserves with a lack of parks and rec user fees and facility rentals, less parking revenue and less casino revenue.

Coun. Ian Thorpe said he thinks it’s going to be difficult for council to hold to a 3.0-per cent tax increase.

“I recognize that’s a starting point and I certainly won’t speak for council [but] I think that there’s a number of projects and programs that we don’t want to see put on hold,” he said. “We want to move things forward and that helps stimulate the economy.”

Coun. Ben Geselbracht said a 3.0-per cent increase is a good goal for which to strive, but said he’s inclined to entertain good business cases for investing public money.

“I personally would like to keep the focus on achieving the things that we need to achieve for the community,” he said.

One of the subjects that raised the most debate Wednesday was Coun. Zeni Maartman’s motion for the city to look at a business case for a mobile response unit. She said the idea is to have mental health workers accompany RCMP officers on certain types of calls and added that city council has some say in determining policing priorities.

Coun. Jim Turley said the community charter doesn’t say anything about mental health and addictions being a civic responsibility and Mayor Leonard Krog agreed the concept falls outside the city’s jurisdiction.

“This is another tiny, well-meaning Band-Aid that will not address the long-term issue, which revolves around housing and institutionalization for severe cases and a fully funded system that protects and enhances our health systems so that people with mental health issues get the care that they need,” Krog said.

But Coun. Don Bonner and others said there was nothing preventing the city from funding that sort of initiative.

“There is something in the community charter that says specifically we’re responsible for the well-being of our citizens and I think this is right up there at the top of providing well-being for our citizens,” he said.

Coun. Erin Hemmens motioned for city staff to develop a business case for a manager of housing, which she said was a “placeholder” position while the city’s health and housing task force continues its work on the homelessness and mental health and addictions file.

“It’s been a huge struggle for the community with enormous costs in terms of policing, social disorder, health,” said Geselbracht. “I recognize that we’re under capacity in terms of co-ordinating an enormous amount of community integration that needs to happen, but also the senior level of government advocacy that we need.”

Bonner proposed a business case for a staff position for an indigenous engagement specialist “for the purpose of better incorporating a First Nations and urban indigenous perspective and ways of knowing into our work and decisions.”

Geselbracht proposed a business case for a manager of sustainability, which he said he believes could be partly funded by a B.C. Hydro grant. He also proposed a business case for a community watercourse restoration grant stream to “leverage community volunteer labour” to help with shared natural restoration objectives.

Coun. Tyler Brown proposed a business case for an e-bike rebate program.

All the motions passed. Krog, Thorpe and Turley opposed the business case for the mobile crisis response unit and Turley also opposed the business cases for the watercourse restoration grants and e-bike rebates. Coun. Sheryl Armstrong was absent.

Mercer said the city’s departments will complete their own business plans by September or October for review by senior management. Council is expected to review the draft financial plan in November and December, hold public consultation and pass three readings by year end. The provisional 2021-2025 financial plan will be adopted next January.

READ ALSO: City of Nanaimo finalizes property tax rate

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