Councillors in Sechelt have effectively put the 2020 budget process on hold while awaiting a review from senior staff in an effort to hold the tax increase as low as possible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The March 25 committee of the whole meeting was intended to be a review of the operating and capital budgets based on earlier proposals from the various district departments.
The draft presented in the agenda by director of finance David Douglas envisioned a 7.1 per cent tax increase to cover operations and a three per cent increase for capital, which would have worked out to about $150 extra for a “representative house” and about $158 more in user fees.
Mayor Darnelda Seigers, however, said she wanted to start the meeting by hearing from each councillor about how they wanted to do the budget “in this new environment.”
“Before we get into the conversation about actual budgets, I think there’s another conversation to have,” she said.
And, one by one, councillors weighed in saying the budget as it looked was not what they wanted to proceed with.
“I feel like we’re living in a whole new reality, “ said Coun. Brenda Rowe, who added that they need to look now at what’s “absolutely essential to us going forward in the next year.”
Coun. Eric Scott said he agreed. “We need to ensure that we’re recognizing everybody in our community as far as their ability to manage their taxes.”
“This is the time to tighten our belts,” said Coun. Matt McLean. “If we look to the community, there are a lot people who have been laid off this week. There are a lot of people who had their income significantly cut. I don’t think there’s a single person across the District of Sechelt who hasn’t been impacted.”
McLean suggested a starting point could be holding off on the three per cent that’s been included every year to build capital reserves. “This is not the year for that.”
Coun. Alton Toth said as a business owner in Trail Bay Centre he’s seen almost every other store close. “We’re not talking about a problem that’s going to go away in a few weeks, we’re going to be dealing with months at best.”
Toth said he agreed with dropping the three per cent increase for capital and not going ahead with any new staff positions.
“Given our current state we can’t even entertain the majority of the asks,” said Coun. Janice Kuester, who also advocated dropping the three per cent.
Coun. Tom Lamb said he was in agreement with his fellow councillors, but also wanted to see some projects advanced enough to be shovel ready when the federal and provincial governments start stimulus spending so Sechelt will be “the first ones in line.”
Siegers said holding the line with a zero tax increase for 2020 is “not realistic; that’s not going to happen.”
The committee meeting wrapped up in just over 20 minutes with direction to staff to review the budget and come back with a new plan, but Siegers also said the new budget package should include information on the community impact of decisions to drop certain projects.
“Each decision that we make has far-reaching implications not just for us but for others in the community who depend on some of the funding that we put inside of our budget to create jobs for their businesses… We are all being impacted by this one way or another.”