City councillors made some changes to the budget for 2019 and are now working with a preliminary property tax increase of 4.97 per cent.
The City of Nanaimo held special finance and audit committee meetings Tuesday and Wednesday at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre, where councillors made motions around some of the budget drivers. The most noteworthy changes were five additional staff positions not included in last week’s draft budget, including four new firefighters, offset by less money than recommended for the public works snow and ice clearing reserve and the strategic infrastructure fund.
The city’s draft budget started at a 5.03-per cent property tax increase, then moved to 5.41 per cent due largely to increased WorkSafe premiums.
City staff’s draft budget recommended seven new staff positions, but various departments made business cases the last two weeks for additional positions. Of those asks, the finance and audit committee chose to recommend four firefighters and a temporary GIS technologist.
Fire chief Karen Fry told councillors that Nanaimo Fire Rescue is “currently not meeting our standards as designated by council on the arrival of the first [fire truck on scene].” She said the trucks arrive within the targeted six minutes 78 per cent of the time. Fry suggested firefighters are working a lot of overtime and she said approximately five employees are off at the moment due to stress or other mental health concerns.
The finance committee was working with a 4.81-per cent property tax increase at one point before adding the four firefighting positions.
“I know it’s a significant increase, but again, it goes to the public safety,” said Coun. Sheryl Armstrong. “They’ve had a lot more things to deal with, especially with the tent cities, fentanyl issues; we’ve heard that [the fire chief] has got five off right now.”
One staff position that was debated but ultimately not included in the 2019 budget was that of an active and sustainable transportation coordinator.
“We know the implementation of the transportation master plan has been less than ideal with respect to public expectation,” said Coun. Tyler Brown, who made the motion to add the position. “We do know that we’re doing an [official community plan review] and those type of things can be reflected well in the OCP as well, and we do know that active transportation is of benefit for health, the local economy and our overall sustainability goals.”
Coun. Don Bonner called it a “must-have position” and councillors Brown and Erin Hemmens suggested it would be preferred to a staff-recommended position of parking and street use coordinator, though both ultimately voted in favour of that position, too.
“In a time, in a culture when we’re really looking for change and I think this city is looking for change, I think having someone devoted to supporting the implementation of our transportation master plan and ensuring that we are getting on target with emissions reduction, etc., we’re building our city around active transportation. It promotes health, it promotes well-being,” Hemmens said. “I just have some reticence around funding three new positions around parking.”
Armstrong was among those voting against Brown’s motion, saying the city doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to justify the need for an active transportation coordinator. Coun. Ben Geselbracht said while he supports active transportation, he wishes to have a conversation on the topic first to determine if an active and sustainable transportation coordinator is the best investment the city can make on that file.
During discussion of snow and ice clearing, staff noted that the city’s reserves were at zero at one point and need to be built up, and were recommending $200,000 to engineering and public works’ snow clearing reserve and $75,000 to parks and rec’s snow clearing reserve. Coun. Jim Turley made the motion to reduce the contribution to public works’ snow clearing reserve to $100,000.
“I guess this is really just a question of tolerance for risk…” said Brown. “If we were to reduce the addition to reserve, we do always have the option to amend the budget if we did have a significant snowfall this year.”
Also of note, Bonner at one point in the meeting made a motion to take $1 million from the city’s uncollected tax reserve for a one-time reduction to property taxes. Staff and other councillors decided there needed to be more general discussion of reserves and possible restructuring of reserves.
“I know $103 million (in reserves) seems like a lot of money, but between 2007 and 2017, 97.2 per cent of the contributions we made to operating reserves, we spent, and it’s really critical we have healthy reserves for emergencies and opportunities,” said Wendy Fulla, city manager of business, asset and financial planning.
Councillors Turley and Hemmens voted against the four firefighter positions. The sustainable transportation coordinator position failed on a tie vote, with councillors Turley, Geselbracht, Armstrong and Ian Thorpe opposed.
The finance and audit committee was unanimous in recommending moving ahead to next week with the 2019-2023 preliminary financial plan with a 4.97-per cent property tax increase. There will be an e-town hall meeting Dec. 10 and another finance and audit meeting Dec. 12. Three readings of the provisional budget are scheduled for Dec. 17.