Budget system ‘needs to change’

Three of the major cost drivers that will send property taxes up by 3.95 per cent this year “should be significantly lower next year,” finance director Hilary Tsikayi told Township council at a budget meeting on Monday.

However, she warned against fluctuating tax increases, arguing that “regular small property tax increases raise more money than large sporadic increases.”

This prompted Councillor Kim Richter to remark that several years of five percent and four percent increases cannot continue.

“For some people, five per cent is very high and their wages have not gone up five per cent,” she said.

But the costs won’t go away, Tsikayi advised.

The three major cost drivers are wages and benefits, which add $2.3 million to the budget, the police contract for $1.4 million more, and $705,000 to convert Murrayville fire hall to a full-time facility.

Combined, these are the equivalent of four to five per cent of the total budget.

Richter questioned Langley’s “huge surplus,” arguing that it suggests too much had been put away in previous years.

Tsikayi advised that surplus funds are used to finance one-time capital projects, reducing the need to raise taxes or borrow money.

The Township no longer includes in its regular budget cycle specific amounts for the Capital Works Reserve which traditionally has funded capital projects, thus a surplus is the last available funding source.

Richter said that the budgeting system used by the Township is not sustainable, suggesting instead zero budgeting which requires every department to justify its expenditures.

Staff had earlier advised that the only realistic way to reduce the tax burden was to eliminate or reduce programs or services.

At their next meeting on April 11, council will consider three major parks and recreation projects for inclusion in the budget, and paid for with surplus funds. These are an artificial turf field for Aldergrove, a field house for Willoughby Community Park, and a park for the Yorkson neighbourhood.

Council will also have to decide on cutting services to reduce costs, or increasing user fees.

These options include reducing hours of operation at recreation facilities, extending the maintenance closure of the Blair Recreation Centre from two weeks to three, closing the demonstration garden and cancelling Rivers Day.

However, a majority of council refused to scrap hanging baskets for Aldergrove.

At council’s most recent budget discussion, Councillor Charlie Fox had asked staff to provide the salaries and expenses of all the council members. This was done on Monday, but not discussed.

The information shows that, with expenses, the nine council members together make almost $450,000 in wages and expenses.

At $93,962, Mayor Rick Green Green’s salary (using 2009 figures) is the highest. The eight councillors made between $36,129 and $38,273.

Their expenses show a huge disparity. Green’s totaled $12,620. Among councillors, Fox had the least amount at $187, and Councillor Mel Kositsky the most, at $7,688.

Councillor Bev Dornan, in her first full year on council, had $6,888 in expenses.

Staff also provided council with information about staffing levels. From 2003, (pop. 91,600), to 2011, (pop. 105,000), 158 people were added to the payroll, more than half of them for the fire and police departments

The Township has “quite successfully” reduced staff in other areas through attrition, Tsikayi said.

Key positions are not being immediately filled, and high-ranking bureaucrats are doing double duty.

For example, the Township’s top civil servant, Mark Bakken, has been acting as municipal clerk since the departure of Eric Britton several years ago.

Ramin Seifi, who heads the planning department, has assumed the responsibilities of the engineering department since the retirement of Colin Wright in February.

The Township currently has 24 positions which are being kept vacant while staff determines if they can be eliminated.