Tax hike squeaks by city council

Property taxes will rise 3.83 per cent this year in Whitehorse. But they almost didn't.

Property taxes will rise 3.83 per cent this year in Whitehorse.

But they almost didn’t.

Whitehorse City Council approved this year’s operating and maintenance budget by the narrowest of margins on Monday night. Councillors Dave Stockdale, Jocelyn Curteanu and Kirk Cameron each voted against the $65-million budget, which passed on a vote of 4-3.

The vote came after councillors debated delaying the final vote or reducing the proposed tax increase.

Talk of reducing the tax increase shocked Mayor Dan Curtis. He had been in France on city business and missed the previous two meetings.

“I’m really perplexed a little bit here, and I don’t quite understand where we’re coming from,” he said before the final budget vote.

But he was clear on this: Whitehorse’s budget does not include money for Mt. Sima.

City administration and council will meet behind closed doors this week to discuss options for supporting the struggling ski hill.

“I’m always open for a conversation. And I’m really hopeful a solution will be found. But it will be a community solution. Quite frankly, I don’t have a cheque for $800,000 in my back pocket,” Curtis told reporters after the meeting.

Support can’t come from the city alone. “We don’t have the money.”

But council had a lot to say about the budget before the final vote. And these discussions weren’t about Mt. Sima.

Cameron proposed increasing taxes by only two per cent, and then revisiting the decision in a month. This would give council time to consider other ways of generating revenue besides raising taxes, said Cameron. The city could also look at redistributing federal funds so taxes don’t have to increase as much, he said.

Putting the tax increase at two per cent would keep it in line with rising costs of living, he said. And it would respond to what citizens want. Council received over 70 written submissions on the budget, and the vast majority of citizens don’t support tax increases. The increase originally proposed hits citizens “square between the eyes,” said Cameron.

“Let’s at least give that credit to the population and see what we come up with in a month’s time,” he said.

But his amendment was defeated by a vote of 4-3. Only Stockdale and Curteanu added their support to the motion.

It was just “smoke and mirrors,” said Coun. Mike Gladish. “I think it’s a way of just putting off a decision that we’ve made and trying to please the taxpayers that aren’t happy with tax increase.”

About one per cent of the tax increase will help pay for the increased transit service, he said. Beginning in the fall, buses will run every weeknight until 10 p.m. Right now, they only run that late on Friday nights. This justifies a tax increase, said Gladish.

Coun. John Streicker was also wary of voting for the amendment. He respected its intent, but reducing the tax increase to two per cent would cost the city around $575,000 in revenue, he said. That would mean cutting services or laying off staff, he said. He wanted to know what cuts would be made.

“In order for me to vote on something, I want to know what those cuts are,” said Streicker.

The vote on Cameron’s amendment came after council defeated another proposal. Stockdale wanted to delay voting on the budget altogether for two weeks. He had a lot of concerns with how it was put together, he told council.

Instead of raising taxes, the city could take some money out of reserves, he said.

“Just $50,000 out of those reserves would not destroy anything, when you think about what we’re going to put back in those reserves in the following years,” he said.

Council didn’t spend enough time at meetings discussing the budget, he said. And there needed to be time to review all the public input on the budget, he said.

And a lot of the public input wasn’t about the budget at all, he added.

“Mt. Sima hijacked the whole process,” said Stockdale, referring to more than 20 delegates who spoke on March 11 to support the city funding the ski hill.

Both Curteanu and Cameron supported the motion to delay the vote.

“It appears to me that the taxpayers are fully behind lowering this tax rate,” Curteanu said. “And as a result, I think we should make an effort to look into that.” If citizens showed they supported the city funding Mt. Sima, the city would find a way to help the ski hill, she said.

Coun. Betty Irwin voted to pass the budget as proposed. But her support came with reservations. The city needs to look at how to increase revenue without raising taxes, she said.

“We have to get serious about this. We cannot continue to raise property taxes year after year to the absolute distress and anger of the public. Why should we? Why shouldn’t we look for new ways to solve this problem of the constantly rising taxes?” she asked.

“I will vote for the budget,” she said. “I’m not happy with it. I’m not happy with the 3.83 per cent increase,” said Irwin.

Every municipality dreams of finding other ways to increase revenue, said Mayor Dan Curtis. But the reality is, most of the city’s budget goes to pay for city staff. And there are strict rules about how the city uses federal funds, he said.

Budgets involve compromise, he said.

“We said it wasn’t going to be a painless exercise, and it’s not. It stings and it hurts,” he told council. “But we have what we have. I think time is of the essence. I think 3.83 (per cent tax increase) is totally workable.”

And dipping into reserves is not sustainable, he said.

“The City of Whitehorse runs a really, really, really tight ship and there’s not a whole lot of fat on the bone,” he said. Decreasing revenue is “preposterous” he said, since that would mean the city would have to dip into its reserves.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at

mgillmore@yukon-news.com

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