Residents in Sooke are concerned about the imminent tax hikes to pay for the new sewer system.
Preliminary budget figures may see service cuts or tax increasesBy Bryan Dreilich
for the Sooke News Mirror, March 28, 2001
The district of Sooke is having a hard time living up to a 3.4 per cent budget increase projected last year.
Preliminary figures indicate property owners could now see taxes jump by 5.21 per cent this year or see some services cut.
"Choices have to be made," district administrator Tom Day told council at last week's Committee of the Whole meeting.
Sooke residents voted to incorporate by a margin of 1,437 to 937 in June of 1999 on the basis that residential property taxes would not rise at all in the first year and remain at 3.5 per cent over the next 11 years. After 12 years, the district was expected to have a $1.765 million surplus.
Last year, the district just missed its zero per cent target. Taxes increased by a meagre .31 per cent. This year, just the second year of the district's existence, the preliminary budget is falling way off track -- about 50 per cent greater than projected.
And the projected $1.765-million surplus after 12 years has evaporated to as little as $350,000.
Day said a number of factors have contributed to the budget problem.
To begin with, he said the incorporation study was based on a "no service level increase" premise, yet he said council was elected on an "economic growth" platform.
Day said another problem council faces is that several items thought to be regional items on the incorporation study actually have to be paid for by the municipality. Those items include library services, which will cost another $64,900 annually, community parks, which demand another $25,000 annually, and emergency planning and animal control, both which cost another $1,000 annually from what was presumed in the incorporation study.
"Right off the bat, we have a three per cent tax increase from where we should be," Day said.
He said some figures in the study were simply underestimated, such as policing costs. During the incorporation study, the RCMP were under a wage freeze, but since then their salaries have risen. The study estimate was off nearly $100,000 annually beginning in 2004.
Staffing salaries were also underestimated in the study. In addition new paid positions, such as that of the fire chief at $65,000 annually, were created. Prior to incorporation the fire department was headed by a volunteer chief.
As a solution to this financial pickle, council has suggested that Day look at cutting a number of expenditures.
Expenditures are already up by $500,000 over the incorporation study.
Some of those expenditures mentioned by councillors at the meeting include roads and boulevards, bylaw enforcement, economic development, fire department costs, policing costs, and general government, which includes staff, council, finance, and administration costs.
Councillor Marcus Farmer said council will have to take a very close look at whether Staff Sgt. Don Brown's request for an additional Sooke RCMP member is a financial reality for the district. Brown has made a pitch to council for an additional member to help patrol areas such as Port Renfrew.
Worried Residents Against Tax Hikes spokesperson George Butcher, who attended the meeting, suggested to the councillors that they take a cut in their own salaries.
"They're higher than expected in the incorporation study," he said. "I'm guessing it would be highly popular among the taxpayers for you to do so."
Sooke council paid themselves $3,500 more than the $4,000 recommended in the incorporation study, making them the highest paid councillors in the Western Communities. The mayor receives $15,000 rather than the $12,000 stated in the study. Only Colwood's mayor earns more.
The lone response from the request came from councillor John Farmer.
"George, I'm sorry I'm taking so much of your money," he said.
As for sewer system costs, they were not found on the preliminary budget because they don't pertain to all Sooke residents.
Last year several items soared over the incorporation study's estimate, such as district staff recruitment costs that were over by $35,600, start-up costs like building renovations were over by $45,000, and enumeration costs were over $18,500.
The next budget meeting will be an April 2 Committee of the Whole meeting.
At that meeting, council will be presented with a few budget options, according to director of Finance Rick Senkler.
"Tom [Day] has given me instructions to rework the budget, so that's what I'm doing," he said.
As for the diminished $1.765-million surplus, Senkler said the Sooke administrator thought the figure to be excessive.
"That's three quarters of our budget," Senkler said. "Mr. Day thought 15 per cent of our current operating expenditure was a more prudent level."