Taxes aren’t going down but they won’t be going up as much as North Cowichan brass had anticipated when staff first began the latest round of 2020 budget talks.
A staff report written by Mark Frame, North Cowichan’s finance director, before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Cowichan Valley, recommended that council approve a tax increase of 4.4 per cent for residential, utility, major industry and business classes, and 1.7 per cent increase for light industry. All of that changed when COVID-19 effectively shuttered the region.
More recently, mayor Al Siebring and his council were presented with a 1.8 perc ent increase option for all classes, which seemed to align better with the current pandemic conditions and the associated uncertainty.
“It is recognized that 2020 will not be a business-as-usual scenario,” Frame said.
At a special council meeting on April 15, Siebring and his council discussed the issue and were able to chip the increase down to roughly 1.41 per cent through three specific cuts.
Coun. Rob Douglas said not filling three planned positions at municipal hall, reducing council’s compensation temporarily, and taking funds away from council’s travel and office budget could all be looked at as minor but symbolic gestures and should be considered.
Coun. Chris Justice had also called for the hiring freeze for the remainder of the 2020 tax year.
“I think it is probably prudent at this time because the risk of under-preparing is greater,” Justice said. “That’ll give us time to see how bad things are. If things are really bad at least we won’t be on the hook for the full cost of those three positions.”
Council also agreed to a six month, 10 per cent decrease in remuneration for themselves and for the mayor and then they voted to reduce their travel and office budget by $30,000 given the reduced need.
Despite council voting in favour of the three cuts, they still wondered how to shave more off a potential tax increase and whether that was wise.
“I would really like to go to zero per cent taxes [increase] but I don’t think that’s a realistic thing moving forward,” Coun. Deb Toporowski said. “If we could do it, then great, but I think we’d be kicking things down the road and it might come back to us.”
She wasn’t alone in that opinion.
“The idea is to get to a budget that is as responsible given the risks and the unknowns we are facing,” Justice agreed.
While she didn’t disagree, Coun. Rosalie Sawrie cautioned against extreme cuts.
“Going into a panic ‘cut what we can’ isn’t going to help us in the long term,” she said. “I think we need to keep some capital projects going to help our contractors. That is where we should focus our efforts.”
Siebring rounded out the discussion explaining why a zero per cent increase would hurt constituents more than a small hike.
“If we set an arbitrary goal of zero… what we cut now is stuff that’s going to have to be done later and it does kick the ball down the road,” he admitted. “We’ve already put off a bunch of road work. Those pot holes don’t fix themselves, those roads don’t fix themselves. It becomes a very difficult game.”
Siebring said the COVID-19 pandemic should be considered a three-year problem, not an immediate let’s-get-this-done thing. Thoughtful planning is required.
“This is a long term situation. It’s going to take us a long time to come out of it,” he explained. “Let’s all understand that whatever we decide to cut now…if we go to zero now, we’re looking at 10-11 per cent next year. Do we really want to do that? Be careful what you wish for because if we go to zero, what are we going to end up at next year?”