Budget approved in record time

You'd have thought Kelowna City Council had a collective date it needed to get to by the speed in which they finished debate on the 2013 budget.

The group wrapped up deliberations in record time Thursday, finishing just minutes after 12 noon.

Previous councils have worked well into the night and into the wee hours of the morning before budgets were finally approved.

"This really demonstrates that staff has a very good reading on where council's at. They obviously try to create a budget that anticipates approval by council so, to me, that says there is a high level of respect and cooperation between the elected officials and staff," says Mayor Walter Gray.

"One could say that because there was no quarrel that council just rolls over to staff suggestions and that's not the case at all. They really do tailor it to what they believe is acceptable to council."

A year ago, this same council took several more hours to approve the budget, however, that budget included several contentious cuts in service, including street cleaning and transit, as the city attempted to bring in a document as close to a zero increase as possible.

The 2013 budget increase won't come in anywhere near zero.

Nearly $1.95M was added to the RCMP cost with the addition of three new officers and one civilian agreed to by council a year ago and an unexpected increase of $6,550 per member through the RCMP contract.

Those items alone equate to a 1.95 per cent tax increase.

Councillor Luke Stack took exception with the unexpected increase taxpayers are paying out of the RCMP contract.

Stack says it makes it challenging for a council that is trying to do right by the taxpayers.

"It makes it challenging for us to expand our police forces and do what we need to do when we are challenged with increases of this magnitude," says Stack.

"I think it is worth everyone knowing that the city is absorbing a 4.7 per cent increase for the services we are providing today - to maintain them. That is one of the challenges we have when we are trying to keep our overall taxes down."

The 2013 budget council agreed to Thursday will see taxpayers pay an additional 2.58 per cent ($42.41) in taxes over a year ago for the municipal portion of their taxes.

The initial 2.54 per cent increase was bumped up slightly after council added another $39,000 to the $357M budget.

While an increase near 2.6 per cent is more than council would have liked Councillor Gail Given pointed out the level of services provided in this budget should have meant a 4 per cent increase.

In order to keep the increase at a manageable level, the city has moved $1.4M in 'pay-as-you-go' capital funding over to the operations budget.

'Pay-as-you-go' is a process in which 40 per cent of new construction revenue is set aside for future capital projects.

"This is a good strategy this time when development is low but it will take political courage for future councils to not say yes, let's keep cutting pay-as-you-go capital. It was a bit of an edge of the wedge and I really want to caution that we don't use this on a regular basis as a way to fund what we we want," stated Given.

"I think we need to make sure we protect our future. It's fiscally the best thing to do so that we don't get ourselves into trouble. I don't think it's a really great long-term strategy."

After reducing the street sweeping budget by $282,000 in 2012, about $182,000 of that was returned for 2013.

This means there will be two complete sweeps of city streets including a spring sweep, regular sweepings of downtown, Rutland and South Pandosy business districts.

Bike lanes will be swept 10 times a year, up from nine a year ago.

Council also decided to take a second look at a request to add more left turn lights on Harvey Avenue.

A $50,000 request was tabled until final budget discussions in the spring.

Council was of the opinion that left turn signals be looked at but not if it means taking more money from taxpayers.

The additional six months will give staff and council the opportunity to find the funding necessary through potential savings in other areas of operation.

A final budget must be submitted to the province by the end of May.

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