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Utility hike once again defeated, garbage rates go up instead, council divided

Kyra Hoggan
By Kyra Hoggan
December 16th, 2010

Tempers ran a little higher than usual at the regular meeting of Castlegar city council Monday night, after Mayor Lawrence Chernoff presented – for the second time in as many weeks – a utility hike recommended by city director of financial services Andre Buss.

The staff report outlining the rationale behind an increase of about 2.8 per cent for water, sewer and garbage services was presented in the council agenda at its regular meeting Nov. 29 (for the full story of that vote, click here).

Mayor Lawrence Chernoff and councillors Kirk Duff and Gord Turner voted in favour of the increase on Nov. 29, which councillors Deb McIntosh, Russ Hearne and Kevin Chernoff voted against, narrowly defeating the motion (councillor Bernie Krueckl was absent).

The motion was brought forward again this Monday, though, in a last-minute agenda ammendment, and was defeated by the same margin, this time with Krueckl in favour (Duff was not present due to a recent rib injury).

Councillor Russ Hearne presented an alternate motion suggesting a $5/year increase in garbage fees, instead of the originally-proposed overall utility hike of $20/year, and his motion was passed unanimously.

“In support of the user-pay philosophy, we need this increase, or garbage services will be operating at a loss,” Hearne explained. “That’s not the case with water and sewer – that hike was to build reserves for infrastructure improvements we know we’re going to need down the road…. they won’t actually be losing money next year, like garbage services would have.”

Hearne also said he felt the re-introduction, with no changes, of the motion to increase fees was, “a slap in the face to those of us who voted against it last time.”

He said he thought it was put forward with the expectation that a full council roster (had Duff been present, the hike would likely have been approved by a 4-3 margin) would mean the motion passed in the 11th hour, despite the fact it was defeated just two weeks prior.

Monday’s meeting was the last opportunity to pass the increase, as it was the final council meeting before Jan. 1, 2011, when utility rates have to be made final.

McIntosh agreed with Hearne, arguing that if the members of council vote something down, that should be the final decision, barring new information or an altered motion.

“We did ask for a discussion, and until or unless that discussion happens, it shouldn’t show up in front of us again, and at the very last minute,” she said. “The staff make great recommendations, but when those recommendations come to us (council), there should be discussion and debate, or I feel we end up with the tail wagging the dog.”

Hearne also said he’s not necessarily opposed to the hike per se, but he thinks it should be considered, not as its own motion, but in the broader context of budget discussions, which are slated to begin with meetings in the Community Forum on Jan. 12 and 24 (at 5:30 p.m.).

“We go over everything over the course of months to determine the budget – why would we set the utility rates after a 20-minute conversation in council?” he said. “It’s the taxpayer who has to wear it – so we should look at everything we’re throwing at taxpayers, as a whole, to decide what’s reasonable and what should take priority.”

Lawrence Chernoff, however, said the motion was in keeping with council’s agreed-upon philosophy of introducing small, incremental increases on a consistent basis rather than saddling taxpayers with huge hikes at unpredictable intervals.

“That’s my principle, and I’ll stand behind it,” he said, frankly admitting he re-introduced the motion with a full expectation that he had the votes needed to pass it, even without Duff. “I would never have brought it forward if I didn’t think it would pass.”
 

The one thing Hearne and Chernoff agree upon in this scenario is that, regardless of their differing – and strong – opinions on the matter, they both feel  the current council is so effective largely due to the mutual respect they enjoy….and which they promise will emerge unscathed from this particular parting of views.

Meanwhile, any utility hike they decide upon during budget proceedings (beyond the $5 garbage increase), will remain only a recommendation for the incoming council to consider after next year’s municipal elections.

Categories: Politics

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