Langford staff say keeping the property tax low during the height of COVID-19 was a good decision at the time, but now a higher tax increase is needed to keep pace with the rapidly growing city.
As the city undergoes its annual property tax rate discussion, staff came forward with a budget that would see an 11.94 per cent increase, which has since grown to a 12.41 increase due to troubles facing the Westhills YMCA-YWCA.
The former mayor and council signed an agreement with the YMCA-YWCA that if it were to default on its lease, the city would be required to assume the lease. As a result, city staff recommended approving the additional funding to keep the recreation centre afloat.
The YMCA-YWCA funding alone resulted in a 2.5 per cent property tax increase for Langford.
Coun. Lillian Szpak noted that council was in a bit of a tough situation given the minimal budgets passed by previous councils, of which she was a member.
“In the past, there was never any fat on the budget, so we’re starting there with no fat on the budget, a lean machine, the city was very efficient,” Szpak said. “It’s still that but now we are at a tipping point for growth. There are some some needs that have emerged, so it is a bit of a perfect storm.”
‘None of us ran’ on tax increase: Langford councillor
Council had asked the city’s department of finance to come back with suggestions on how to cut the budget increase for the year to 9.9 per cent.
When staff were presenting the options, it was noted the options to reduce the property tax increase were not recommended, as all of them would need to be funded in future years, or would result in less funding for events or upkeep.
Looking at the suggestions, councillors noted passing a tax increase this large was an uncomfortable position to be in.
“None of us ran on trying to get in here and increase taxes to double digits when we’ve historically seen them so low in our community for so long,” Coun. Colby Harder said.
“But that being said, I see this increase as something that we need to do. It’s time to invest in ourselves as a community whether it’s police for safety require for safety, staffing just to maintain service levels. These are things that our community expects.”
The first suggestion was to reduce the number of RCMP officer positions funded by one from four in the original budget, to three.
The initial budget presentation notes that the city has continued to grow over the past five years, but council previously did not fund to keep up with the “cop to pop” ratio.
“2022 ‘Cop to Pop’ ratio is 1:763 with an authorized strength of 61,” the budget documents say. “Budget as proposed includes funding for 4 additional officers to maintain current service levels and working towards 1:750.”
Another option to reduce the budget would be to fund an additional six firefighter positions, rather than the requested nine, but Langford’s Fire Chief Chris Aubrey told council this would put the city in a not ideal position.
“I understand that the fire department staffing request was quite significant in the impact to the budget,” Aubrey said. “The service level impact is pretty significant, with the request for nine the intention was to have Station Two staffed 25 percent of the time this year.”
“And with moving to six, we’ll be phasing in the reopening of station two from three to either four or five years. Which means that we won’t have that station fully staffed for potentially up to another five years.”
Aubrey notes the department is also still working to get funding for the staff it recommended in the 2017-2022 timeline.
Additionally, Aubrey notes the department is losing the volunteers it is training to other city’s for paid positions, and anticipates there will only be three or fewer volunteers remaining with the department by the end of the summer.
Other recommendations were to reduce the number of new municipal positions by two, reduce the number of community events, reduce the budget for “greening downtown”, reduce the budget to replace trees, reduce the Christmas decoration budget, and other unspecified miscellaneous items.
Council unanimously voted to reject the suggestions.
The next meeting where the budget will be discussed is the May 1 meeting at 7 p.m., where there will be an opportunity for public participation.
Through the budget process, many in Langford have been critical of the new council, noting the previous council regularly kept property tax increases low.
Charlotte Boateng, owner of House of Boateng, tells CHEK News businesses this year are in a tough spot financially due to the circumstances of recent years.
“I think a lot of businesses especially restaurants are feeling the pinch right now. We have just come out of a pandemic that was especially hard on our industry to be thrown right into rising costs in every area especially food costs. This tax increase is pretty steep, maybe the increase could have been more spread out more over the next four years,” Boateng said.
“The argument by the new council is that the City of Langford was using reserve funds to keep taxes low, but the previous council called it an amenity fund paid into by developers, so the people of the city got to reap the rewards of a growing community. The City of Langford seemingly ran like a well-oiled machine for 30 years using this strategy.”
The former mayor Stew Young told CHEK News that he saw the large increase as a mistake.
“It’s a huge mistake. What they’ve done is shift the burden of taxes from developers and investors to the people, and it’s wrong,” said Young on March 28.
Lisa Foxall is a Langford resident and says she is concerned about the impact the increase will have on community members.
“This is just unprecedented in Langford, our seniors on fixed incomes cannot afford this, and our single parents or Langford families, it’s just outrageous,” she said in an interview with CHEK News.
“Interest rates have gone up, and groceries have gone up, gas is outrageous. People just cannot afford record high tax increases.”
-With files from CHEK’s Kori Sidaway