Budget proves huge challenge for council

For many of The Capital’s residents, December marks the season of extravagance — of feast and family, celebration and giving.

For many of The Capital’s residents, December marks the season of extravagance — of feast and family, celebration and giving. For the City of Victoria, the coming months may well be the season of thrift and sombre contemplation of the cold, hard months of winter yet to come. A few months back, the city made a commitment to increase property taxes by no more than 3.25 per cent per year for the next three years. This necessitated an immediate budget cut of at least $6 million — a target that still hasn’t been met.

A recent press release deftly avoided any concrete budget changes, but announced a series of options — including a long overdue cap on police budget increases — that would hold the city over until 2014. The same release admits that the proposed changes are not a solution, and “a lot of work remains” to achieve 3.25 per cent for 2014 and 2015.

For politicians, meeting this target in years to come could be a challenge. In October, council flinched at the last minute when everything from parking rates to community grants were offered up to fill the budget shortfall. Five options were presented, but in a few short hours expenses had actually increased by $100,000/year with an additional contribution to the CRD housing fund.

There is another option. The promise to limit rate hikes to 3.25 per cent doesn’t extend to utilities, regional taxes, or any other fees above and beyond property tax. If the city shies away from budget cuts, taxpayers could just wind up paying the same dues from a different pocket. Taking into account the potentially disastrous future of the Johnson Street Bridge and an impending storm drain overhaul, this future is seeming ever more likely.

Even if Victoria manages to simultaneously scale down and avert any financial surprises, outside forces are starting to chip away at The Capital’s savings. BC Transit has voiced its intention to charge the region an additional 7.4-8.4 per cent to maintain its current service level, a threat dwarfed by the $100-million spectre of a new sewage treatment system.

The choice between financial security and largesse is not an easy one, and the city is taking its time picking sides. Unless more can be done to balance the books, the coming New Year will bring little joy for the city and its taxpayers. M

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