Council sits ringside for budget tug o war

City council is set to sit down and retool the budget. The move follows the Yukon government’s release of 2008 property assessment rates and…

City council is set to sit down and retool the budget.

The move follows the Yukon government’s release of 2008 property assessment rates and citizen feedback from Monday’s council meeting.

The comments ranged from scathing criticism of politicians’ wish-list budget, to accolades for the city’s sustainable vision.

All comments will be considered, said Mayor Bev Buckway before listening to public comments for more than an hour.

“We will have more budget sessions this week after we’ve heard people’s comments.”

The draft budget calls for $50 million in operations spending in 2008. It includes $98.7 million in construction projects between 2008 and 2011, much of that coming from federal gas-tax transfers.

The budget also calls for a 7.5 per cent tax hike this year and four per cent a year over the next two years.

Yukon businesses are dealing with inflation, a challenging labour market and rising fuel costs, so a 7.5 per cent tax hike is just adding to their financial concerns, said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber can’t support the city’s current budget and is urging politicians to cut where they can to keep tax increases in check, said Karp.

“The chamber feels the additional cost to the community will add to the inflationary trend that’s already in place and will detract from people coming here,” he said.

“The chamber recommends the city return to the table and draft a no-increase budget.”

While the city’s business community agrees with spending money on an expanded transit system, sustainable development initiatives, graffiti cleanup and the reintroduction of the hanging baskets, there are things the city can cut, said Karp.

“This budget lays out $4 million in computer infrastructure … can council justify this cost?”

City taxes need to recognize the difference between country residential and urban residential taxpayers, said Wolf Creek resident Harvey Jessup.

Country residential homeowners pay for services they don’t receive and that’s not right, he said.

“The city has the same mill rate for the entire city, but there’s a huge discrepancy in the services they receive.

“There are two services I pay for that I don’t receive, one is public transit … the other is fire protection.” (Editor’s note: country residential homeowners do receive city fire protection, but there is a longer response time and the subdivisions often lack fire hydrants.)

Lack of proximity to fire halls and hydrants causes country residential homeowners to take a financial hit from insurance companies, which charge about $300 more per year to cover their homes, said Jessup.

“Country residential homeowners are paying for a service they don’t receive and then penalized by the insurance companies for not receiving it.”

Last month, the Yukon government released its 2008 property assessments, which showed that residential properties in Whitehorse have collectively gone up in value by 16 per cent over last year.

Others who came to council were more supportive.

Riverdale residents support the budget, but would like to see more spending added to it, said Doug McLean, president of the neighbourhood’s community association.

Riverdale residents like the proposed increase to transit services and commend the move to have water meters installed in people’s homes, said McLean.

The city’s budget included a 50-cent fare increase for buses, and $176,000 in service increases and $3 million for water meter installations in 2011.

“Experience with water meters has proved good in other jurisdictions,” he said, adding that the user-pay model rewards the environmentally friendly.

Riverdale residents would like to see some money added for sidewalk work near their elementary schools and for a city air-quality study, added McLean.

“Air quality is a concern for many parts of the city and Riverdale is no exception.”

Downtown residents also support improved transit, said Brian Eaton of the Downtown Residents’ Association.

“I see this as a very positive thing for the city,” he said.

“I don’t have a problem with the 50-cent increase … (but) perhaps an increase in parking meters would be the way to go.”

Transit service should be further expanded, he added.

Spending money when you need to isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Alex Furlong, the president of the Yukon Federation of Labour.

“The Yukon Federation of Labour is not opposed to tax increases in relation to operations and maintenance costs,” he said.

He is also supportive of the city’s capital spending as the city is receiving $45 million in federal money as part of Ottawa’s gas-tax initiative, said Furlong.

“If given the opportunity to get some $40-plus million, I would certainly take that money to put into infrastructure.”

The only things he would caution the city about is the amount of money it’s spending on organizational reviews and computer infrastructure, he said.

Council is set to vote on the budget later this month.

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