We had a special Council meeting on Monday, where the only item on the agenda was giving three readings to the Budget Bylaw – approval of the 5-year financial plan. We had an Opportunity to be Heard before the Bylaw was read.
This type of Opportunity to be Heard is just that, and opportunity for members of the public to tell us what they think. It’s not really a time for debate with the public, so two-way dialogue is not encouraged. Council has a pile of data in front of it, people are able to provide their ideas on that pile of data, Council makes a decision based on those inputs.
It is important to note this is not the only input the public provide to the budget. We have had on-line engagement for a while, and we have received emails and delegations in previous meetings regarding different aspects of the budget. We have had a fulsome discussion in workshops and in Council, and I appreciate the many voices I have heard in delegations, in emails, and in the many community events over the last few months. Even on my Mayor’s walk last week, residents were telling me what they see as priorities for the community.
I also appreciate the work Council have done to get themselves up to speed on the state of the City’s finances, and their active participation in the workshops we have done coinciding with budget preparation and development of a new strategic plan. Having 4 new Council Members and a new Mayor put an extra burden on staff to assure we had the information we needed to make these decisions, and impacted our timelines. It is great we can sum this work up and start working on the plan ahead.
Following my comments on the evening, there are three big parts of the budget I spoke to, and maybe I’ll follow up with a blog post with more numbers and graphs and such (when I find time), but for now I want to hit on these three points at a high level.
The first is the unprecedented Capital budget we are looking at. This means investing in a spectacular new aquatic and recreation centre, replacing 50 year old facilities with the most modern aquatic facility in the Lower Mainland, and the most efficient one ever built in Canada. We are doubling our recreation capacity, our fitness areas, and much more flexible aquatic space to support everything from Aquafit to competitive swimming to finally having the kind of fun all-ages pool young parents in our community have been longing for, all with Carbon-free energy systems and a building accessible to all. We are also investing in the Arts by making a generational commitment to save and restore the Massey Theatre not just for big shows, but a place where people can learn new skills, can rehearse, and can perform. At the same time, we are leveraging senior government supports to undertake a massive revamping of the critical infrastructure that makes our City resilient – electrical substations and modern metering technology, $11Million in water system upgrades, more than $20 Million in sewer separation program. Even the $1.5 Million we are spending on tree planting and maintenance – we are making the generational investments that our growing city needs. They are not inexpensive projects, or easy projects, but they are building a stronger city. This is what people have asked us for.
The second is how this budget addresses our real operational needs. We heard people worried about livability downtown, and are investing in the Livability Strategy that will address the most pressing concerns for residents and businesses, while we partner with the province and outside agencies to reduce the suffering resulting from overlapping housing, addiction, and mental health crises. Our community partners (the Downtown BIA, the non-profit support providers, the residents downtown) deserve to be supported by the City, and our front line staff need the resources to provide this support. This budget provides it. We are also investing in staff positions to accelerate permitting process, to help with our long-term HR needs and employee resiliency, and to support our emergency response capabilities at a time when the climate emergency is knocking on our door. These investments will let new homes get built faster, will mean more resilient emergency response, will improve the customer service experience at City Hall.
The third part is the aspect of sound fiscal management. We are making these important investments at a time of economic uncertainty. With less stable interest rates and inflation, we, as managers of the public purse, need to not think only about the needs of the day, but about the long-term needs of the community. Balancing the need to invest with debt tolerance and the need to maintain healthy reserves has never been as important as now. We cannot burden the next generation – the young families moving to New West in record numbers and the kids they are raising here – with bad fiscal decisions now, nor can we burden them by not investing in Climate resiliency.
One motion brought to the table proposed cutting $1 Million from our projected surplus to reduce the tax increase by 1%. Problem is, there is no projected surplus due to our major capital investment, so this $1 Million would be added to our debt (something one of the delegates who came to speak to council specifically warned us against) or erode our capital reserves (something our CFO has been warning us about for four months of council discussions). That is exactly the kind of kicking-the-can-down-the-road thinking that created the infrastructure deficit we are currently trying to address. Fortunately, Council did not support this change.
We have new revenue sources like the Low Carbon Fuel Credits, and have further revenue opportunities though District Energy and the trend towards increased electrification, but at the same time are not immune to the same inflationary pressures businesses and residents in our community are feeling. On the optimistic side, we have Provincial and Federal governments ready to invest in the kinds of things that we are trying to build here: Climate resiliency, livability and affordability, housing and childcare, active transportation, and urban forest. We need to be ready with the shovel-ready projects to get access to those senior government funds, and the 5-year capital plan gets us there.
So I supported the budget as proposed, as did the majority of council, and look forward to getting to work building the community New Westminster elected us to build.