Parksville budget debate promises to be long and detailed

First meeting had councillors debating many details of a budget that could increase property taxes by at least 2.5 per cent

If this week’s initial meeting to debate the City of Parksville’s 2015 budget is any indication, colourful and detailed discussions are ahead.

Four of the seven councillors haven’t been through this process for years or never. And one of the veterans has already drawn his line in the sand.

As he promised on election night in November, Coun. Al Greir has put council on notice that he will put forward a motion calling for a property tax freeze. The provisional budget in front of council now, which doesn’t have to be sent to to Victoria for approval until May, calls for a 2.5 per cent increase.

Each percentage point of taxation equals about $110,000 in revenue in the city’s $17 million budget and about $30/year for an average home in Parksville.

“I would hope council would see the benefits of giving taxpayers a break,” Greir said Wednesday night at the end of a 2.5-hour budget session, adding that 30-plus stores and offices in the city sit empty. “You don’t have growth with higher taxes.”

Mayor Marc Lefebvre didn’t seem to agree with Greir’s plan. The mayor said experience shows tax freezes “always ended in higher costs down the road.”

“One thing I will say about you councillor Greir is you are consistent,” quipped Lefebvre.

Much of the proposed tax increase would go to increasing staff in two areas: the hiring of a health and safety officer and a bylaw enforcement officer.

Director of Administrative Service Debbie Comis made a case for both positions on Wednesday night.

Comis and Chief Administrative Officer Fred Manson explained that downloading from senior levels of government has placed a strain on the city’s health and safety committee, basically a group of union and non-union city employees who are doing this work off the corner of their desks.

Increased attention — along with more requirements for certification, training and documentation — for issues related to safety and harassment, for example, have increased the work of the committee to the point where the need has been demonstrated for a full-time position, Comis and Manson explained.

“It’s becoming overwhelming for everyone (on the committee),” said Comis.

Manson and Comis also said there are times when the bylaw enforcement office, now staffed with the equivalent of 1.6 people, has 80 open files to pursue. Comis said bylaw officers in other, similar-sized municipalities consider themselves busy when they have 15 open files.

Coun. Kirk Oates suggested a 2.5 per cent tax increase, once it’s gobbled up by the creation of these two positions, isn’t enough to secure the continuation of the city’s service levels.

“I say we’re doing very little to take care of the future,” said Oates. “I’m not sure if a 2.5 per cent increase is what the city needs to operate. I’m not interested in going backwards (with a tax freeze).”

Only four members of the public attended the budget discussions on Wednesday. One of them, former MLA and mayor Paul Reitsma, asked the city to have a closer look at what it allows retiring non-union staff to claim — and be paid out for — in unused sick leave days.

Reitsma said the Town of Qualicum Beach and the Regional District of Nanaimo have capped that total to 60 days, while School District 69 is at zero days. Reitsma said Parksville is at 261 days, which he suggested could create a huge payouts that could hurt the city’s financial position in the future.

The next budget discussion meeting, which is once again open to the public, is 6 p.m. Feb. 23 at city hall. Residents can also provide their input by e-mail (info@parksville.ca) and through the city’s Facebook page.

On Wednesday, councillors also debated some more fine details related to spending — $2,500 for the North Island Film Commission and $1,000 for the Vancouver Island Tribute Festival — but came to no final decisions.

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