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Pitt council split on tax increase

Tom Murray collects signatures for his zero tax increase petition outside the IGA. - The News/Files
Tom Murray collects signatures for his zero tax increase petition outside the IGA.
— image credit: The News/Files

The lowest tax increase in the past decade failed to get unanimous support from Pitt Meadows council Thursday, as three councillors believe the city can make further cuts to its budget for 2014.

The proposed 1.9-per-cent increase was touted in a press release Monday that noted staff and council trimmed more than $475,000 from a draft budget for next year.

Thursday, a majority of council supported forwarding the proposed tax increase for approval in the new year.

The increase would add $53 to the tax bill for the average single-family home valued at $450,000.

Council’s scrutiny took into consideration a petition signed by 1,500 people calling for no tax increase in 2014, spearheaded by Tom Murray and his wife Norma.

Tom Murray passed away suddenly on Sunday after a brief battle with cancer.

“We heard what our residents and businesses were saying and worked with staff to reduce areas with the least impact on services,” said Mayor Deb Walters.

“I’m proud that council and staff did their due diligence and worked towards a very modest budget increase,” she added.

This is definitely a tax rate increase that we can defend and is less than many figures coming out across the region.”

To make the cuts, council scrutinized its own spending, unanimously supporting a plan to eliminate out-of-province conference travel and significantly reduce corporate membership costs to organizations such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Increasing costs such as the recently announced B.C. Hydro rates and other construction costs were offset by internal savings.

As well, $70,000 could be saved by not hiring an additional police officer next year, as planned.

Walters noted that outside cost drivers and commitments made it clear that no tax increase would be going backwards and put considerable strain on the city, and in some cases, mean the elimination of services.

“This process strikes a balance between responding to requests for service, minimizing tax increases and providing for sustainable long-term investment in our infrastructure,” Walters added.

“We want to avoid holding taxes artificially low one year, as this just compounds the inflationary pressures we will feel in future years.”

Walters, who holds the deciding vote, supports the 1.9-per-cent increase, as do Couns. Tracy Miyashita, Gwen O’Connell and Doug Bing.

“I’m happy with it because it’s low, but it’s also saving for the future with contributions to the reserve,” said Miyashita.

“It’s a responsible budget. Yes, there’s cuts, but it’s safe.”

Three of Miyashita’s colleagues did not favour the 1.9 per cent increase and plan to vote against it Jan. 21, when a bylaw sanctioning the hike is set for three readings and public comment.

Coun. Bruce Bell thinks the city can whittle down its $22-million budget even further and deliver a tax increase that’s just one per cent or lower.

He points to $3.3 million the city received from the sale of land in South Bonson.

“We could take $156,000 from that,” he added.

A one-per-cent tax increase in 2014 would generate $156,000 in revenue for the city.

“I’m not saying make it zero, but we can do a little better.”

Bell also believes there’s $37,000 that could be cut from the city’s human resources budget and administrative meetings, as well as $80,000 for another study on the North Lougheed commercial lands.

Meanwhile, Coun. Dave Murray is eyeing services contracted out by the city that totaled $2.4 million in 2012. (Council did not have figures for 2013 as the 2012 contracts were available only because they were requested under the Freedom of Information Act by tax petitioner Tom Murray.)

“I believe we didn’t cut everything we could have,” said Coun. Murray, who also supports using money from the sale of city land to offset next year’s tax increase.

“I have a hard time believing that two per cent is really low. No one’s getting a two per cent pay raise.”

Coun. Janis Elkerton still believes the city can deliver a zero per cent tax increase and supports using part of the $3.3 million to achieve it.

She noted there were a lot of “low-risk items” that were still pushed through at a four-three vote split.

“I think that zero per cent is doable without touching the level of services. It’s something that 1,500 people asked for,” said Elkerton.

“Council is not my boss, the citizens of Pitt Meadows are my boss. That’s what they’ve been asking for. I’ve heard that loud and clear from the time I came back and ran for election.”

Council will consider the final budget and bylaw at a meeting Jan. 21.

See related editorial: Tom's budget

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