Must-haves versus nice-to-haves: core services get focus

Zero-based budgeting has been on the lips of many taxpayers’ groups and governments at all levels in recent months.

One of the ways to achieve a zero increase is to refocus on core services.

The Cowichan Valley Regional District board has been focusing on what it can do to put a tight rein on regional functions, according to CVRD board chair Rob Hutchins.

"Staff was given the direction to come back with a zero per cent lift in regional functions. There are many functions that are not regional in nature and various commissions that provide input to the board on those functions and so direction was given to staff last year to maintain a zero per cent increase on those functions that the whole board has a part in."

Zero has not quite been possible, even for those, he said.

"I believe because of some necessary increases in some services, for example, 9-1-1," he added.

Going for no tax increase has proved difficult, even for a single electoral area, according to Ian Morrison of Area F (Cowichan Lake South).

"What’s happening on the ground is this is the second election year in a row that the changes to the assessments have conspired to make it almost impossible for Area F to achieve a zero per cent lift to the residential taxpayer," he said recently.

"Preliminary numbers for my electoral area indicate that I’ve actually had a real dollar reduction in the range of about $50K to the number of dollars taxed but that equates to an overall 1.4 per cent increase to the residential property taxpayer because the forest industry is not picking up the slack like it used to."

However, directors had to tell CVRD staff to make an effort to find cuts.

"The taxpayer tolerance for large increases has evaporated. I’ve heard it loud and clear," Morrison said.

Shawnigan Lake area director Bruce Fraser said regional districts also face downloading from federal and provincial levels of government and funds must be found to deal with difficult situations.

"A good example there is a water system that was put in by a developer in the 1970s, adequate for the rules of the day. It’s now aged out, people want to transfer it to the regional district and have it properly managed. But the regional district has to adhere to federal and provincial standards and therefore you suddenly have to renovate those systems up to modern standards, which costs an arm and a leg. It’s a public safety or a public health issue. You’re required to do it so away you go."

There’s also a huge discussion about the must-haves versus the nice-to-haves, he said.

"People at the local elected level are right smack up against this with their constituents and so are sympathetic but face the tax pressure on one hand and the need on the other," Fraser said.