City targeting decrease in 2015 municipal taxes

Financial plan calls for fiscal conservatism

Budget discussions were held in Abbotsford on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Budget discussions were held in Abbotsford on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Abbotsford taxpayers are on track to see a small decrease in city taxes in 2015, if council approves the proposed budget presented on Tuesday and Wednesday at Matsqui Centennial Auditorium. An average resident would save about $3 through the 0.15 per cent tax reduction set out in the financial plan.

The city portion of taxes is reduced by 1.95 per cent due to “extraordinary savings.” Those come from the end of the Abbotsford Heat contract – $1.8 million; changes to the city’s agreement with the Abbotsford Centre’s operator Global Spectrum – $517,000; and changes to animal control, which will save $44,000.

“Before we even started to put together the financial plan we had nearly a two per cent tax reduction,” explained city manager George Murray to council, but added that the city has external agencies with cost pressures, such as police, which quickly eroded the surplus.

Factored into the municipal portion of the tax is the budget requests from police, the Fraser Valley Regional Library and BC Transit, which brings the total proposed tax decrease to 0.15 per cent. Municipal taxes account for about two-thirds of an average resident’s tax notice, which also include school, hospital and regional taxes.

This is the first presentation of the financial plan, which will go to council for debate and adoption in March.

The city has more than 800 employees and a total budget of about $220 million, with an operating budget of roughly $170 million and a capital budget of $40 million.

Of the municipal services expenditures set out in the 2015 plan, 22 per cent goes to police; a total of 20 per cent for parks, recreation and culture; nine per cent to fire rescue and emergency services; eight per cent for transportation; and five per cent transit.

Murray told council “we are being very fiscally conservative. There’s no hidden user-fee increases in this budget.”

Abbotsford taxes have decreased since 2009, when taxpayers saw an increase of 5.50 per cent. In 2010 and 2011, taxes went up 4.50 and 4.30 per cent. In 2012, the increase was 1.66 per cent, and in 2013, taxes went up 1.28 per cent.

In last years’ budget discussion, the initially proposed tax was an increase of .44 per cent, but was reduced to zero per cent due to unplanned growth when the bylaw was approved.

Murray explained the 2015 plan includes limited new capital projects and instead focuses on a plan for renewal and replacement of infrastructure, with $5 million going to future infrastructure requirements.

The plan calls for a reduction of eight staff members at city hall in 2015, but 2.43 equivalent positions will be created in economic development and the planning department, including a bylaw supervisor position.

Large projects within the budget include a replacement roof for the Tradex building, two new fire halls at Matsqui and Mt. Lehman and funds for parkland acquisition around Mill Lake Park.

Police Chief Bob Rich presented the department’s request for a budget increase of 3.32 per cent, primarily driven by wages. The department’s 2014 operating budget was about $44.4 million.

In 2013, the police department advised council it would not ask for new staff for three years. Last year, the department’s budget required the reduction of four police and one civilian position through attrition, and Rich said they “noticed the difference.” This year’s budget calls for staffing levels to remain the same.

Mayor Henry Braun asked about the impact a zero per cent increase would have on the department. Rich explained that the impact may not be immediate, but as many resources go into crime prevention, the consequences would be seen down the road.

Braun told The News he was pleased with the budget brought forward by staff, saying the plan “wasn’t driven from the top down; this came from the bottom up.”

Though much of the savings came from the end of the Heat contract, the Abbotsford Centre is still expected to require a subsidy. Braun said the city is still actively looking for an anchor tenant that would not cost the taxpayers money.

“I think the best we’re ever going to do – even with an anchor tenant – is right about that $1 million mark (in deficit.)”

Braun said while he approves of staff’s proposed tax decrease, “we may get that down a little lower.”