Budget meetings a bust

Kyra Hoggan
By Kyra Hoggan
March 31st, 2010

Two public meetings regarding the city budget drew a grand total of 12 attendees who were not members of city staff, council or media.

Meetings held at the city forum Monday night and the following evening at the Blueberry Community School were remarkable only in their lack of attendance, despite the city’s proposed seven-per-cent residential property tax increase.

“I think it’s absolutely pathetic that the citizens of Castlegar don’t engage in their own financial management process,” said councillor Deb McIntosh, after Monday’s meeting. “I think they should be ashamed of their apathy and lack of participation.”

Mayor Lawrence Chernoff expressed similar frustration, adding the city gets condemned for lack of public engagement, then sees virtually no response when said engagement is offered.

“We need the public input,” he said. “We’ve asked and we’ve asked and we’ve asked … we’re all taxpayers, no different from anyone else.”

Councillors Russ Hearne and Kirk Duff took a more optimistic tack, after Tuesday’s meeting, arguing the lack of attendance signals, for them, a contentment on the part of Castlegar residents.

“We are only left with one option …to assume residents are satisfied with what we’re doing,” said Duff. “I must, and I do, believe that Castlegar residents are trusting us to do the right thing.”

This, despite one of the most contentious budgets in recent years, that will see residential taxes go up 6.9 per cent (about $114 per year for the average single family home), and about $180,000 in cuts.

City director of financial services Andre Buss said about $300,000 will be shifted to the residential tax base to allow for a 16.5% reduction in major industry taxation (which, he noted, will still see Castlegar boast some of the lowest residential tax rates in the area, even as compared to 2009 numbers).

A roundtable conversation after Buss’ presentation Tuesday saw some residents expressing dismay over the city’s conciliatory approach to problems with its highest rate-payer, Celgar, which declined to pay its tax bill in 2009 and filed suit in court instead. The city has since signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Celgar and lowered its tax rate by 16.5 per cent, ending the court action and prompting Celgar to pay its outstanding tax arrears.

“I think it’s worth noting,” said Buss, “that they (Celgar) did pay dearly for that decision – they paid a $360,000 penalty and $40,000 interest.”

He also pointed out Castlegar’s new south sewage treatment plant, City Hall and fire hall, explaining Celgar’s tax contributions were instrumental in seeing these projects to fruition.

Those arguments notwithstanding, resident David Lubbers said Celgar’s tactics disturbed him.

“They did put a gun to this city’s head … I’ve been upset about this for a year, almost. The fact that we’ve rolled over and allowed them to do this to our community and the way they did it …it’s inappropriate,” Lubbers said, adding, “It would’ve been nice to have this meeting before the deal with Celgar was signed. (People have told me that) if they (council) cared what we thought, they would’ve talked to us before the deal was signed.”

Resident Peter Wulowka agreed, arguing that if the city is going to pitch in for Celgar now, there should be some sort of reciprocal agreement whereby Celgar, when it starts seeing the fiscal gains from its new co-gen operation, offers some sort of profit-sharing to balance the tax cuts it gets today.

Councillors then pointed out that the city is not able to tax profit, but is only allowed to consider property values when levying taxes, and thus had no authority to enter into such a deal.

Other suggestions ranged from decreasing policing to going through the budget on a nickel-and-dime basis looking for cuts rather than raising residential taxes, but by the end of the meeting, both Wulowka and Lubbers said they felt better about both the budget and the rationale driving it.

McIntosh added it’s important the city be sympathetic to the people who will be hard-hit by the tax increase.

“Some people don’t have the $100 – they’re struggling to just to put food on the table,” she said. “I think it’s important we remain empathetic to their situation.”
In related budget news, a city survey sent out to gauge public response to this year’s budget issues has garnered 125 responses, which city manager John Malcolm said will be processed in the coming several days.

“We’re weighting and collating the answers,” he said. “Staff will present a report, if not at the coming council meeting (on Monday night), then certainly at the following one, for council to consider before adopting the budget.”

For more specific details on the proposed 2010 budget and five-year financial plan, see Crunching the numbers. in today’s Source.


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