Oliver & Osoyoos  

Tensions high in Osoyoos over nearly 40 per cent tax hike

Tax hike has tensions high

Tensions are high in Osoyoos over a major tax hike that has prompted protests and public outcry.

In late October, council approved a 2024 budget that will see average single-family dwelling owners pay a total overall increase of 39.3 per cent, up to $5,366.49 as opposed to the 2023 average of $3,852.45. Some additional portions of the tax bill that are overseen by the provincial government will not be known until 2024.

Council heard from staff at the time that the municipality is in dire need of more funding to deal with major infrastructure issues, particularly their long-beleaguered water system and wastewater management.

Notably large capital project line items in the 2024 budget include a combined $6.8 million for projects related to wastewater improvements, including for odour control at the wastewater treatment plant, and $15.6 million for various water system infrastructure needs.

More money will be needed for such projects over the subsequent four years, according to the five-year projection.

The tax increase has not sat well with many citizens. When letters went out in November to monthly property taxpayers, there was considerable sticker shock expressed on social media.

Since then, growing groups of protesters have begun making their presence known outside Town Hall, and at town council meetings.

At Tuesday's meeting, a large group displeased with council's actions were in the gallery.

Some on council took the opportunity to address the simmering discontentment in the community, and alleged harassment.

"I live in Osoyoos, I pay the same taxes as all residents. And just because I have a name tag here doesn't make me any less human than anyone else. I don't deserve to be harassed, my wife doesn't," said Coun. Johnny Cheong.

"I think we as a whole [community] can do better. And that's me included ... I'm doing the best I can with the information provided to us from our staff to be as an effective councillor as I can be. Our current situation is bleak. My daughter's bath water shouldn't be brown, your water shouldn't be brown, residents shouldn't need to go indoors because [of unbearable stench]."

Coun. Zachary Poturica said the water utilities situation is at a critical point.

"We're at a time right now where we can't ignore this issue. This issue isn't going to go away. Right now it doesn't make sense feasibly to finance the large portion of these capital expenditures due to current interest rates, market conditions," Poturica said.

"The past few weeks have been challenging her community as levels of hate anger, division and discrimination in our community, which has resulted in residents fighting with residents, businesses against businesses. Behaviour the past few weeks is concerning, and it reflects poorly on Canada's warmest welcome and our community as a whole."

He added that while the tax hikes "may not be popular," they are needed to address years of "artificially low tax rates" and a dire infrastructure situation.

Mayor Sue McKortoff said "harassment and discrimination" has been "disheartening," choosing then to read out a portion of an open letter from Dustin Sikora, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2022, accusing her of a conflict of interest in her vote to support funding for a personal friend running the annual Music in the Park program.

"I want the public to know that council makes the decision on where funding is allocated, a majority vote is what determines where funding is allocated. To be clear, I did vote on funding this event. All information is made available to council including myself. The decision was unanimous to fund the Music in the Park application," McKortoff said.

"I want to be clear that I take my job as mayor and my oath of office very seriously."

As McKortoff continued, members of the gallery interrupted, shouting "Shame!" and requesting she read out the full Sikora letter, before the meeting was closed for an in-camera matter.

Concerned citizens are planning a "Citizen's Town Hall" on Wednesday evening, at AMS Truck Repair in Osoyoos at 6 p.m., expecting hundreds of attendees.

The organizers describe it as a "peaceful, respectful, thoughtful meeting of the minds," with no aggressive behaviour tolerated, including an open mic period for locals to explain how the tax hike will impact them.

Mayor and council have been invited, however it is unclear whether any plan to attend.

Coun. Cheong stated at Tuesday's meeting that town staff have been directed to set up a municipally-organized open forum to hear concerns from the public.

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