Comments on Budget at the Feb. 13 Council Meeting

Ron Bolin: Feb. 13, 2012

Mayor Ruttan and Councillors:

Before you pass three readings of the Financial Plan Bylaw tonight, thus filling that mold with cement which, though it may not be fully set until April, becomes harder to rework with each passing day, I would like to ask that you give more consideration to this plan and to the hardships which it may offer to many, if not most, citizens of Nanaimo.

For as long as memory serves me, Council has approved budget increases which have considerably exceeded the increase in the BC Consumer Price Index.  This year that increase is currently set at 3.8% for residential taxpayers, compared to a BC cost of living increase of 1.7%.

Other than the brief discussion of adding an “Internal Auditor”, a position that frankly in the light of the imminent appointment of a Municipal Auditor by the Province, seemed a straw man or woman in any event, and was subsequently cut, I remember no serious discussion of the proposed $160 million dollar budget which is before you tonight.  Neither do I remember hearing, prior to Staff’s introduction of this budget submission, that Council had provided any direction to Staff in its preparation.

This is unfortunate and is exacerbated by the fact that on at least two occasions at which I have been present, attempts by individuals on Council to discuss such matters were promptly quashed by other Council members who raised Points of Order, indicating that their venues were not the place for the discussion of such matters. Where is the place and the time at which these matters of vital public interest are discussed and what is the public’s right to be party to them?

Without getting into budgetary details I would like to request that you review some budget issues which have apparently been ignored.  The first is the matter of the old city annex.  For most of us, deciding to build a new home rather than renovating our old one involves prior planning on what we will do with the old one as this decision is vital to our financial statements needed to obtain a mortgage.  While the new Annex rises and the old one is to be emptied by the end of this year, where is the financial plan for this depreciating asset which will, even if empty, consume at least heating and maintenance dollars?  Nanaimo’s residential and business taxpayers are required to have an all-encompassing when we want a new home.  Why does the City ignore the existing real estate in our five year plan?

We have also had considerable discussion about the need for some $65-75 million dollars for a new water supply to meet the demand of future growth.  You have recently authorized the expenditure of up to $560,000 for a study of a possible new dam site at a location which is owned privately, additionally is apparently contested under the Douglas Treaty, and further is apparently not the preferred option in any event.  This is a lot of high stakes taxpayer money to be spending in an environment which appears about as ambiguous as it can get. Statistics Canada’s 2011 population data for Nanaimo removes nearly 4000 people from the informal estimates which have been used by the City for that same period in discussing the need for a new water source.  Perhaps we should use the time to reduce the risky ambiguities associated with growth before we charge ahead as we have sometimes done in the past.

An equally important consideration in the development of such a major project to serve the needs of the yet to come is how it should be funded.  It has been repeatedly stated that the new water source is needed to accommodate anticipated growth and are not needed for our existing population plus another 16,000 or so newcomers.  Let alone resolving the question of whether we can afford growth, why in the plan is there no discussion of the need to increase Development Cost Charges to recover the anticipated costs associated with that growth?  Are present taxpayers expected to pay for new growth?  Have you heard of any old established business which pays people to use its services and yet is not in ultimately dire straits?

And last but not least there is the question which looms over all… the cost of maintaining the infrastructure which we already have.  The last estimate I heard for the City of Nanaimo’s assets was $1.8 billion (with a B) dollars.  With New Annexes, Bowen Road Widening, the coming new water treatment plant, a possible dam, other gleams in Council’s eye such as tax exemptions, fast ferries, a multiplex, etc. which are still on hold –well maybe not the tax exemption which forms part of tonight’s vote on the Financial Plan- where do our assets stand now, and how do we propose to pay to maintain them all?  I have heard estimates that we are deficient by about $12 million per year in meeting the maintenance demands of our infrastructure.  When will the hammer fall on these expenses which are accumulating and compounding as time goes on.

This Financial Plan needs much more discussion and much more transparency and orientation to the problems which we know are coming our way.  Please take time to do proper due diligence.