District of Mission councillors were split over tax increases in the budget during a meeting last week. Three councillors were in favour of staff’s recommended tax increases, and three were not.
Staff had recommended a net-property tax increase (including utilities) of 2.24 per cent to help pay $1.27 million in new services, staffing and previous spending obligations.
Tensions rose during the discussion when Coun. Ken Herar suggested a tax freeze for 2021 and brought out a foam costume to protest any tax increase during the pandemic.
“A tax freeze can be achieved with minimal consequences on capital expenditures and no effects with cutbacks on staffing,” Herar said. “This is the right thing to do without causing setbacks to the district.”
Acting Mayor Cal Crawford immediately told Herar that council is not a “high-school performance” and that his costume needed to be put away. He said the district is still “paying the piper” from previous years of cutbacks.
“I know the public; they want to see zero because it’s the simplest, it’s the nicest, it’s the safest way to move – but it’s also the shortest outlook. We are in a community that is busting at the seams,” Crawford said. “It’s not only busting at the seams to grow, but it’s busting at the seams to be maintained.”
The district recently completed a public survey, which received 148 responses about taxation in relation to public services: 57 per cent said they want to cut services to reduce or maintain the current taxation rate, while 35 per cent wanted to increase taxes to maintain or increase services.
Eighty-eight per cent of the respondents owned their homes.
Herar stood alone on his position of a zero per cent tax increase, and the three councillors approving of staff’s recommendations felt his suggestion was ridiculous.
Coun. Danny Plecas said the district is growing rapidly and many developments will add substantially to the tax base and community amenity fees – but these projects will need to be serviced. New developments in 2021 are projected to add $400,000 to municipal coffers, according to the budget.
“It is totally impractical for anybody to suggest that we continue the level of services we provide and go to a zero budget. It’s impossible. You’d be cutting services,” he said. “That’s absolutely ridiculous … Are you doing the public any favours this year or are you just going to look good this year?”
Plecas warned sharply against draining the district’s reserve funds, which he said is essential for major upcoming infrastructure projects.
“Our water and sewer infrastructure needs, between now and 15 years [from now], is in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “If you’re taking money out of reserves – guess what – next year we’re going to have to increase water and sewer fees.”
Out of the total $1.27 million increase, $92,000 would be put towards a new administrative assistant for the parks and recreation department, and $50,000 would be used to fund programming at the Clarke Theatre.
Coun. Jag Gill, who voted against moving the budget forward, said he was “very surprised” other councillors wanted to hire any positions at all. He said he would be in favour of going through every department to see where “we could tighten our belts.”
“We need to be very conservative with this budget,” he said. “People that are just about to be brought to their knees are going to be brought to their knees.”
Coun. Carol Hamilton said the 2.24 per cent increase is not a big ask of the community, considering Mission is one of the fastest growing communities in the area. She said for the average home, it works out to an additional $6.54 a month.
Council eventually passed a motion to move the budget forward to a first draft with a 4-2 vote, after an amendment was made to draw $140,000 from municipal reserves and keep the net-tax increase at two per cent, saving residents 70 cents a month.
Several councillors asked how the $5 million in provincial and federal funding for the “Safe Restart” plan can be used.
Staff said the funds will be used to subsidize the municipal shortfalls associated with COVID-19, such as the operational costs, but it cannot be used to reduce taxes in any way.