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Battle lines drawn for council’s budget debate

The city should start shaving its budget to avoid hitting city ratepayers with a 7.5 per cent tax hike, say city councillors.

The city should start shaving its budget to avoid hitting city ratepayers with a 7.5 per cent tax hike, say city councillors.

Mayor Bev Buckway’s December 10th budget speech was too ambitious and sports items that taxpayers shouldn’t pay for, said councillor Doug Graham.

“I’m going to vote against the budget unless it has some changes,” said Graham earlier this week.

“There were a number of items that were in the budget that were wish-list items.

“Council has just got to start considering the taxpayer, instead of just what city administration would like to have.”

New staff positions could be carved out of the budget, which identified a 15.5 per cent tax hike over the next three years, $50 million in operations spending in 2008 and $98.7 million in construction projects between 2008 and 2011, said Graham.

The city doesn’t need the extra half-time environmental position. Cutting it could save $45,000, he said.

“I haven’t seen any great public outcry saying we need more environmental controls in the city of Whitehorse.”

Another is a new parts person, a $63,000 position, said Graham.

“I don’t think that’s necessary.

“When we’re in a tough financial position, which I think we are if we have to increase taxes 7.5 per cent, then we shouldn’t be doing the frivolous stuff.”

And cut the sister cities program, he added.

He’ll suggest several changes to the proposed budget, and he’s hoping for support from other councillors, said Graham.

“They’re going to have to vote on each one of these things individually.

“That means they’ll have to stand up in front of taxpayers and say, ‘Yup, you should have to pay more taxes so that we can have a person running around town picking up parts from businesses that have parts runners of their own.’

“Each one of them, they’re going to have to say to taxpayers, ‘You should have to pay higher taxes so we can send a councillor to a sister city or something like that.”

Council has never really agreed on the budget that was tabled, and he’s still not sure if he agrees with it, said councillor Dave Stockdale.

“We never really sat down and had a show of hands to see whether we were going to go this route or not, but I have a feeling we should really sit down as a council and review this again,” said Stockdale.

“It certainly wasn’t settled when we walked out of that budget room, not really.

“I’m not totally comfortable with it at this point in time, especially with the assessments going up. I’m looking at the extra costs that people are going to incur with that.”

With all of the extra money the city is pulling in from an increase in property assessments, the proposed tax hike should come down a little, he said.

“I wouldn’t have had a problem with the 7.5 per cent, although it’s pretty high, but add an eight-per-cent assessment increase and that’s quite substantial.

“I figured my taxes would go up $200, now they’re going to go up $400. When you’re only paying $1,300 or $1,400 that’s a substantial increase.

“In the past, we’ve rolled that back through the mill rate and leveled things out a bit.”

While user fees will also hit Whitehorse residents’ pocket books a little harder, that’s not as much of a problem, he said.

“It’s always been a user-pay policy … it’s just a fact of life that things cost more.”

Along with the proposed property tax hikes, the city’s budget also included a proposed 1.5 per cent increase in cemetery fees, a 1.5 per cent rise in recreation user fees, a three per cent hike in water and sewer charges, and an 8.5 per cent jump in tipping fees at the dump.

Lowering the proposed tax increase to five per cent will force the elimination of new programming or provoke service cuts, said Buckway.

Gone from the budget would be a new downtown bus loop and increased transit service worth $176,000, the elimination of 24/7 emergency dispatch pegged at $86,000, a new grinder for composting worth $8,000, money for a trail plan budgeted at $65,000, and the environmental co-ordinator, who would administer a citywide garbage cart program for $45,000, and a parts person position estimated at $63,000, she said.

“We’d have to get rid of all those program changes right off the bat, either that or find somewhere else in the budget to do that.

“It’s to the point that we can remove these for 2.2 per cent, but if we want to go further than that we have to cut service.

“That’s the hard part because what services do we want to cut.”

She stands by the budget, but awaits public feedback before making a final decision, said Buckway.

The budget is reflective of what citizens said they wanted, said councillor Jan Stick.

“I listened to the arguments on those things and I listened to what people told us at the sustainability charrette, and those are things that people indicated to us that they want us working on.

“They want us working on (things like) environmental projects.”

She supports lowering the tax hike if someone comes up with a way to do it, but she doesn’t want to see service levels drop, said Stick.

“I support the 7.5 per cent, but I think if someone came up with something innovative that wasn’t going to mean cuts in service, to increase our revenues or decrease expenditures, then I would certainly consider that.

“I’d love to be able to roll it back, but can we roll it back is the question.”