Chris Istace talks to North Cowichan council about forestry policy at a special budget meeting Monday night. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)

Chris Istace talks to North Cowichan council about forestry policy at a special budget meeting Monday night. (Warren Goulding/Citizen)

N. Cowichan council mulls big 4-7% tax hike

Proposals to increase staffing at the municipality by hiring five new people were on the agenda

A lengthy and occasionally testy special council meeting has moved North Cowichan’s budget process a little closer to the finish line.

Proposals to increase staffing at the municipality by hiring five new people at a cost of $505,000 annually and options for the forestry budget were on the agenda at a Monday night meeting.

The net result could see taxes rise by four per cent or even as high as seven per cent for property owners, significantly higher than the 2.89 per cent that was being projected in November.

“This is not to say you have to do it, this is your budget and these are your decisions,” CAO Ted Swabey told council as he explained his rationale for creating five new positions including a chief building inspector ($112,500), program and services coordinator ($104,000), procurement advisor ($104,000), applications analyst ($95,500) and part-time land administrator ($89,000).

“How we deliver customer service is our number one problem” Swabey suggested, pointing out that he conducted an organizational review in 2018 and is going to dig deeper with an administrative review.

“I felt that staff was (working) at capacity and a third party (consultant) confirmed that.”

Swabey says North Cowichan “needs a lot of help” and he plans to modernize operations in the coming months.

At this stage in the budget process, council is considering Swabey’s hiring proposal, priorities for capital projects and other spending as it heads to a May 15 deadline for adopting the 2019 tax rates and financial plan bylaws.

“We have a challenging budget,” Swabey said. “There is a shifting culture within the organization and around the council table. There has been a significant change in values at the council table.”

Swabey said that while many municipalities usually make good progress in their deliberations and have no trouble meeting the mid-May deadline, this could be more difficult for North Cowichan councillors this year.

“We’re not likely to get ours done until the last minute in May,” he predicted.

A contentious issue and one that brought out a handful of spectators and speakers on Monday is the question of how to deal with the forestry budget.

Members of the public filled council chambers at an earlier council meeting demanding a review of the forestry strategy in North Cowichan. Council has agreed to do that but the process could have a dramatic impact on the 2019 budget, Mark Frame, the municipality’s finance director explained.

“If logging is paused there will be a deficit of $631,560,” Frame said. “With a budgeted profit of $127,750 that would mean a revenue shortfall of $759,310.”

That shortfall alone would necessitate a 2.64 per cent tax increase.

Other options include salvaging blown down trees only and logging a reduced amount of lumber, alternatives that would be less damaging to the budget.

Chris Istace of Chemainus urged council to slow down before making a decision on the forestry strategy.

“This is not the right time to make a decision on forestry operations,” Istace said. “You’re putting the cart before the horse. Now is the time to engage a skilled consultant.”

Former councillor and defeated mayoralty candidate Joyce Behnsen was critical of plans to hire more staff.

“The public is concerned about growth of spending, growth of government. Five-hundred-and-five thousand for more staff, I was shocked to see that on the agenda.”

As the more than two hour meeting was nearing its conclusion, Behnsen took to the podium to demand an apology from Mayor Al Siebring, suggesting Swabey’s comments about North Cowichan needing a change of culture confirmed her beliefs and criticisms of municipal staff. Behnsen had been disciplined while on council for her treatment of staff.

“If you’re looking for an apology from me, you’re not going to get it,” Mayor Al Siebring shot back.

Earlier in the meeting veteran councillor Kate Marsh and rookie Tek Manhas engaged in a brief skirmish when Marsh suggested it was more important for a proposed meeting to be scheduled to meet councillors’ needs rather than the public’s ability to attend.

“I’d just like to remind Coun. Marsh that we do work for the people, we don’t work for ourselves,” Manhas said.

Marsh defended her statement saying if councillors weren’t able to attend a meeting they wouldn’t be able to do the job on behalf of the public.