Squamish seeks middle ground on budgets 

Council to weigh proposals for four per cent decrease against 17.5 per cent increase

District of Squamish (DOS) Council and staff weighed two very different budgets at an in camera Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday, with just one month left before they must submit their final budget to the province.

On the one hand is a staff recommendation on the budget that would increase property taxes 17.5 per cent this year, in order to maintain current service levels.

On the other hand is a revised budget put forward on April 7 by the finance standing committee, which in a stunning turnaround advocated for a four per cent decrease compared to last year's budget. That would likely involve cuts to services, leaving several positions vacant, and possibly some layoffs of district workers.

Whether there is some middle ground between the proposals has yet to be seen, but Mayor Greg Gardner says the people of Squamish need to see what could be lost before they make any decisions or attempt to reconcile the two budgets.

"(The finance committee's recommendation) is a 21.5 per cent decrease off the staff recommendations, which is quite a gap," he said. "We haven't made a decision yet... but we asked staff to bring forward a budget to reflect that (four per cent decrease) so council can see what impact that would have on services for the community. We will review that budget and make some decisions about what services we wish to provide or not provide, and ultimately what our decision on taxes should be."

Squamish has until May 15 to file a budget with the province, and the clock is ticking said Gardner.

"We are later in the process than we would like to be, but we do have sufficient time to make good decisions."

On top of the proposed four per cent decrease, the DOS has also received new calls for spending that would result in a tax increase. That list of items includes a temporary full-time position for a trails contractor, and additional funding for transit shelters and extended hours.

Councillor Paul Lalli sits on the finance committee, and was responsible for bringing forward the recommendation for a four per cent decrease.

"The economy is a big factor," he said. "For the past six years one of the biggest employers in Squamish has been the construction industry and Kiewett, which is handling the Sea to Sky Highway construction project. With the economy construction has slowed down considerably, and obviously the highway project will be completed relatively soon, so employment is a huge factor.

"Elected people can't control interest rates, we can't control gas prices, but we sure can control property taxes."

Lalli says the finance committee looked at the budget line by line to come up with the four per cent figure, which he says will translate to roughly $688,000 less in property taxes collected.

"The proposed budget staff presented was a 17.5 per cent increase, which in the eyes of council and the community was totally unacceptable," said Lalli. "So we asked staff to go back, and we chose four per cent because we felt four per cent was a reasonable number that can be achieved without having too much impact on the community."

Lalli is aware that the clock is ticking, and that they only have weeks to finalize the budget to allow for any public consultation. Recommendations are currently being made by the finance committee and councillors who are looking closely at every line item. It's a tough job, but Lalli says everyone wants to be thorough.

"When I was a councillor six years ago there was a detailed explanation for pretty much every line item in the budget, but now we're not given that," he said. "We should question that, as we are accountable to the public. This is the taxpayer's money and we want to spend it wisely. We want to be sure if there is any fat or waste that we eliminate it."

Whether there would be any layoffs as a result of the budget is still to be seen, Lalli says, adding that it was too soon to predict while there was still back and forth discussions on the budget.

There are several issues that complicate the budget, including a potential $600,000 increase for RCMP funding, based on a funding formula with the province and the latest census figures. Squamish could see its financial responsibilities increase from 70 per cent of the RCMP budget to 90 per cent, based on the population breaking 15,000.

Squamish is investigating the increase and may take legal action against the province and federal governments after the population was revised from 14,949 to over 15,000 in the 2006 census.

But the main issue for Squamish continues to be its transition from a forest industry town into a tourism and recreation centre and bedroom community.

"One of the reasons we've been having budget issues over the last couple years is that we've lost a large portion of our industrial tax base," said Gardner. "Those were valuable tax dollars because industry is not a large user of municipal resources, which is a net benefit to the community.

"Moving forward, we've seen inflationary pressures in the last few years in labour and material costs for capital projects, and we're also governing a growing community, which brings pressures as well."

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