City raises fees, taxes and cuts services

Mayor Bev Buckway supports a 2007 city budget that sees a 10 per cent, across-the-board increase in fees, higher taxes, an $8-million city deficit…

Mayor Bev Buckway supports a 2007 city budget that sees a 10 per cent, across-the-board increase in fees, higher taxes, an $8-million city deficit and various service cuts.

The hikes will see property taxes go up $78 a year on single-family dwellings worth $131,420.

There’s a three per cent increase in utility rates, a seven per cent increase in garbage fees and higher user fees in select city facilities.

“I think we’ve got a very fair budget here,” said Buckway after her budget address at city hall Monday.

 “When you look at where some of the tax rates are in public taxes across the rest of western Canada for example, we come in at being on the bottom end.

 “In fact, we’re ranked about the lowest if you consider cities like Edmonton and Victoria and Surrey and Grand Prairie and Medicine Hat — so you know, it’s a very fair budget and I know that our citizens want more services, but there’s only so much to go around.

“I prefer to see small tax increases on a regular basis than waiting for a long time then having huge increases.”

The capital budget has shrunk to $16 million from $25.2 million. The operating budget has increased to $41.3 million from $39.6 million.

The city is $4 million in debt and will be adding another $4 million of debt to build a bigger fire hall to replace fire hall No. 2 atop Two Mile Hill.

There’s no guarantee there won’t be further tax increases because of the $8 million in city debt, said Buckway.

But the city’s debt load is manageable, she added.

“We could have up to $45 million in debt and we’re keeping it very low considering,” she said.

“We’re very, very fortunate here in the city of Whitehorse that it can be so low and council certainly considers taking on any increased debt very, very carefully and I’m sure some of us would like to have absolutely no debt … but when we have things like new fire halls that we need, then we have to take on a bit of additional debt.”

Also mentioned in the budget address was the idea that the Canada Winter Games will bring in $200 million to the city.

“The citizens will be left with a legacy of facilities that would otherwise be unattainable for any community of our size,” she said.

However, the Canada Games Centre has increased the city’s operating costs, she said.

“You have to realize that we’ve gone from having a pool facility and two arenas and now we have a wonderful Canada Games Centre up on the hill and it’s certainly a bigger facility than we’ve had before,” said Buckway.

“We’ve got soccer pitches in there, we’ve got a wellness facility and just the size of the building along with the Olympic-size ice in there — that takes, of course, more staff to work with — and we’ve got a big increase in our energy cost for the building.”

Perhaps the most notable item in the budget address are the cuts in services that Buckway says will balance the budget.

Cuts include: a reduction in the number of city managers that will save about $500,000 and decreases in parks and recreation expenditures (which Buckway translated to mean less-manicured city flower beds and poorer quality green spaces.)

Despite these cuts, services are costing the city more.

“Well if you note the 20-per-cent population growth that we’ve had in our city in the last few years and with that population growth comes extra service requirements,” she said.

“We’ve got more kilometres of road now than we’ve had in the past…and all these things just take more labour and more costs, more fuel to keep our service levels where our citizens would like them to be.”

It was necessary, she said of her first budget as mayor.

“I stand behind this budget,” said Buckway.

“This is a budget that has been put together with a lot of input from staff and also with council.

“We all go through the budget and we make decisions jointly on accepting or not.

“When we present this budget it’s a lot of work that’s put it there and it’d be nice to not have any increases, but we have to be realistic with what our citizens have told us they want.

 “I know that some residents will be unhappy with our budget, some of them will feel that there are additional services that they want that definitely won’t be included…we’re trying to keep our service levels as consistent as possible to previous years so we had to do a little bit of juggling.”