Ladysmith council looks to keep tax increase below five per cent

As the Town of Ladysmith reviews its preliminary budget, council grapples with the balance of keeping taxes down and providing services.

As the Town of Ladysmith works through its budget process for 2013, decisions will be made with an eye toward community resiliency.

Council has identified “community resiliency” as the primary focus for 2013 and has chosen a specific list of top priorities for the year. These priorities for 2013, as identified by council and listed in no particular order, are:

• wastewater (sewer) treatment/infrastructure

• water treatment/infrastructure

• economic and environmental development

• waterfront area plan

• boundary expansion

• Stz’uminus First Nation partnerships/servicing agreements

• organizational streamlining

• business case/risk analysis protocols

• succession plan

• land sales

• inventory municipal plans — zoning bylaw

• technology/information system upgrade

• citizen/staff surveys

• impact reporting system

This approach represents a shift in the organization, and the way to achieve this objective within the existing budget parameters is to ensure that the town’s staff and funding resources are directly aligned with the new priorities, according to the preliminary version of the town’s 2013-17 Financial Plan.

At this early stage, the preliminary budget shows a 9.22 per cent increase in property tax for Ladysmith residents.

Calling this increase “very significant, to say the least,” Mayor Rob Hutchins told councillors they need to give direction to staff about tax increases, noting that a nine-per-cent increase is about a $100 increase per household — which has never happened in Ladysmith before.

“If we wanted to stick to a four-per-cent increase, we would have to ask to take $300,000 out of the budget,” he said.

Councillors all agreed they would like to see the increase in taxation stay somewhere between four and five per cent.

“There are things in here that will be really important, but I think we can take away some frills,” said Coun. Jill Dashwood.

When it comes to property tax, the town’s objectives are to reduce the share of property tax paid by Major Industry (Class 4) by at least two per cent over the next five years, continuing a commitment to encourage investment and employment in the community; and to maintain the property tax rate for business and other (Class 6) at the current rate or less.

Coun. Gord Horth said he would like to see council change these objectives.

“I think we’ve got to change our philosophy,” he said. “I think the direction in the past was the right direction, and we’ve got more equilibrium now, and whatever tax increases should be across the board. I think these objectives have to be in line with the services we’re leading people to believe we’ll provide.”

A significant increase in the police tax is expected in 2013. The Town contracts policing services with the RCMP, and Ladysmith property owners pay 70 per cent of the cost to employ seven full-time RCMP members. Unlike previous years, the detachment will have a full complement of members, and this will require additional funding and will have a significant impact on the taxpayer, according to the Financial Plan.

“I have a real concern with this,” said Hutchins, adding he would like to take the issue to the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities or the Union of British Columbia Municipalities. “It appears to be provincial downloading.”

“For us, this is the first year we’ve been at full complement, so it does put a large hit on our government,” said city manager Ruth Malli.

With the cost of staffing at full complement, plus an increase in the per-member cost, the proposed policing budget will increase by $81,855 in operations, as well as $65,000 for mandated closed-circuit television and $50,000 to upgrade the RCMP detachment building.

Taxpayers in Ladysmith must also pay a library tax, as Ladysmith is part of the Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL). The tax rate is determined by the  VIRL board and is based on population. In 2013, Ladysmith’s total bill payable to the VIRL will be $303,456, which is an increase of six per cent (or $17,222) over 2012.

Another piece of the taxation puzzle is parcel tax. A parcel tax is charged on properties within the Town boundary that have or will have water and sewer services. Little change, if any, is expected in parcel taxes in 2013. The sewer parcel tax will remain at its current level of $269, while the water parcel tax will remain at $100 or increase slightly by $10 depending on decisions of council, according to the Financial Plan.

Water, sewer and garbage fees are charged on a quarterly basis. Depending on the decisions by council, sewer rates could remain at the current levels, and water rates could increase by 3.8 per cent, based on the recommended capital projects, according to the Financial Plan.

The Town also raises revenue by charging user fees for programs and services such as recreation facilities, development permits, building permits, development applications and subdivisions. Recreation Centre fees are reviewed annually, and council passed a bylaw in December to increase recreation fees by two per cent in 2013.

In 2013, the Town of Ladysmith will be faced with significant infrastructure upgrades related to sewer and water.

Significant investments have been made in improvements to the Waste Water Treatment Plant, and the next phase of the upgrade will cost $16.9 million, making it the largest project in Ladysmith’s history.

The Town is also proceeding with the first phase of its source water disinfection upgrades.

One of the challenges the Town is facing is replacing aging infrastructure, such as water mains and sewer mains that need to be replaced.

The Town’s budget documents are available online.

Final taxation impacts cannot be determined until the full B.C. Assessment Roll is released at the end of March. As new information becomes available, the budget will be updated and finally presented for adoption before May 15.