City of Nanaimo councillors trimmed the potential property tax increase to 5.1 per cent as they prepare to hear taxpayers’ thoughts a week from now.
A special finance and audit committee meeting was held Monday at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre, where councillors added and subtracted some optional line items from the 2020 budget.
The projected tax increase was at 5.6 per cent after last week’s special finance and audit meetings. Today’s adjustment was mostly due to a decision to cap the strategic infrastructure reserve at 2019 levels instead of increasing it from $2.14 million to $2.55 million.
Also, councillors opted to spend $67,000 on emergency medical responder training for firefighters, $50,000 for one new staff member for Nanaimo Victim Services and $35,000 on BMX track redesign.
Councillors granted a request for an additional $31,000 for Vancouver Island Symphony operations, but chose to fund it from reserves rather than through a tax increase. An additional $30,000 request from the group for its Symphony by the Sea event was not granted.
As well, the finance committee opted to pay for Loudon Park boathouse design work out of reserves, and chose to defer a manager of sustainability staff position to 2021.
“I do appreciate that staff have been very conservative in the business cases that they have put forward to be included in our budget and these are all worthwhile things and we can’t get everything all at once,” said Coun. Ian Thorpe.
The finance committee voted 8-1 in favour of capping the strategic infrastructure reserve. Only Coun. Tyler Brown was opposed, saying he thinks people want more infrastructure in the city.
“When I think about the things people want, it’s not – and I don’t mean this disrespectfully – it’s not staffing at city hall,” he said. “It’s new washrooms at Maffeo Sutton, it’s different types of events, it’s the Loudon boathouse, it’s more bike lanes, it’s all those sort of things.”
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— Nanaimo Bulletin (@NanaimoBulletin) November 21, 2019
The EMR training for firefighters will upgrade them to a higher level of medical certification at a cost of $67,000 in 2020 and $60,000 per year between 2021-2025. Coun. Zeni Maartman said it’s a low investment if it saves a life and felt it’s generally “great bang for our buck” and Coun. Ian Thorpe also spoke in favour.
“This goes to public safety … which should, in my opinion, be council’s top priority,” he said. “This is allowing our first responders to have a higher level of training to deal with emergency situations that they are coming across and hopefully saving lives of our citizens.”
Victim services had recently asked the city for two new staff members, but the finance and audit committee is recommending one for now.
“I think this is an incredibly important service in the community. I think it’s deserving of two additional staff members; however, we do need to be mindful of our budget this year,” said Coun. Ben Geselbracht. “I think this is definitely a show of support, with modesty.”
His motion was unanimously supported, as was support for Nanaimo BMX Association design work.
Councillors were more hesitant with the symphony’s funding requests, noting that the group missed out on grants. The vote passed 5-3 with councillors Brown, Geselbracht and Erin Hemmens opposed to both the request and the funding source. The Symphony by the Sea funding request did not make it to a vote as no councillor made a motion to bring it to the table.
On the manager of sustainability position, both Brown and Geselbracht noted that the staff recommendation to wait a year was inconsistent with budgeting for a manager of economic development services, for example.
“The level of urgency there is not quite where I’m feeling it,” Geselbracht said. “However, I do understand that I don’t have the same level of operational knowledge in how everything fits together so I do have to defer to staff’s expertise.”
He and Brown both mentioned the climate emergency declaration. Brown suggested when it comes to sustainability, the urgency isn’t there at the council table, within the municipality or in society as a whole.
“Every month that goes by just makes it harder and harder, and larger and larger gains need to be made in a shorter period of time,” Brown said. “I don’t think people are kidding when they say the level of mobilization on this topic needs to be on par with [what’s] known as war efforts and we’re barely nibbling around the edges.”
Coun. Sheryl Armstrong, on the other hand, said everything staff is doing is with a sustainability and environmental lens, and Mayor Leonard Krog agreed, saying neither city staff nor community members in general are being given enough credit for their changing attitudes toward the climate emergency.
“I don’t believe the position itself, in and of itself, will advance the cause that’s already being undertaken by so many of the staff,” Krog said.
The motion passed with councillors Brown, Geselbracht and Don Bonner opposed.
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— Nanaimo Bulletin (@NanaimoBulletin) November 18, 2019
Another line item that the committee discussed was increasing hours for bylaw enforcement officers; however, no decision was made at the meeting.
There was also some debate about possibly reducing or eliminating the $100,000 council contingency, but no motion was made. Thorpe said he didn’t think it was a large amount as a contingency fund and said it has been useful when “semi-emergent issues” have come up in the past.
Hemmens suggested that dipping into the larger strategic infrastructure reserve wasn’t necessarily a better choice.
“I agree that the council contingency begs bad decisions, and I just want to be really clear that those are our decisions,” she said. “If we then go from a $100,000 pot of money with which to make bad decisions to a $2.5-million pot of money using that same rationale, we’re in trouble. So I think we just need to make better decisions.”
There will be another special finance and audit meeting the morning of Dec. 2, and the public is invited to participate in a budget-focused e-town hall meeting that night at 7 p.m. at the conference centre.