Victoria council asks staff to re-look at budget items; and other council items

Victoria council asks staff to re-look at budget items; and other council items
Nicholas Pescod

After Victoria staff presented the draft budget to council for the 2024/2025 financial year, council asked staff to report back on the implications of adding or removing a number of expenses.

Council members put 18 questions to staff to report on the implications, though entering the meeting there was a much longer list of 27 questions.

Some items council suggested to reduce the budget increase include looking at ways to make the bike valet revenue neutral, eliminating permissive tax exemptions for religious organizations without charitable status, and questioning certain department’s budget increases.

Items being added to the budget include increasing the allocation for Indigenous place names in the city, increasing the commitment to public washroom facilities, increasing the budget for the North Park Neighbourhood Association and Downtown Residents Association, increasing the Festival Investment Grant, increasing the Local Street Rehabilitation program, and a grant for the Sanctuary Youth Centre.

These questions were brought forward by Victoria council members in hopes of reducing the 8.37 per cent tax increase put forward in the draft budget.

A key theme throughout the discussions was whether the questions being asked of staff were best put forward as a staff recommendation or if it should ultimately be a council decision.

On a number of the questions that were ultimately removed from the list of questions, including limiting the five year property tax increase to 40 per cent and cutting each department’s budget by three per cent, Victoria Coun. Matt Dell said he would classify these as a “wild goose chase” for staff.

“We had council training [that] said if you’re going to cut the budget, do not ask staff to do a one or two or three per cent cut, pick something that you want to cut,” Dell said. “It’s very easy to do this kind of stuff and it sounds good in the media, I’m sure, but this has real implications for staff.”

On the flip side, Coun. Stephen Hammond countered that asking staff to do an over-arching cut to their budget is better put in staff’s hands.

“I read a long time ago Lee Iacocca’s book, in which he said when he was trying to save Chrysler, and he did, and he said that if you can’t find five per cent in your budget, then or more or less, you’re not very good manager or something along those lines,” Hammond said.

“I feel as though I’m a fraud to be suggesting that in a $300 million plus budget, that I am the guy who knows I can go in there with all this detail and say ‘cut this and cut this.’ There might be some obvious things that we’ll be going through. But if anyone knows it, it’s the departments, it’s the people that we work with.”

Staff is expected to return to the Jan. 15 meeting with responses to the questions posed by council members.

Tensions flare during budget discussions

While discussing whether to ask staff to make sweeping cuts or whether it should be council members making specific suggestions on what line items to cut, some were using terms described by Mayor Marianne Alto as “vitriol” and she asked people to use “a more even tone.”

Coun. Jeremy Caradonna suggested in the meeting it is “cowardly” to ask staff to come back and make sweeping cuts. After staff noted that reducing the budget for the communications and engagement department would result in layoffs, Caradonna said if any council members were to want to continue with these cuts “then they should have the courage to say that publicly and own it publicly and say ‘I want staff layoffs.'”

Following this, Coun. Marg Gardiner suggested “almost assertions on people’s character should be removed from this discussion.”

Two-and-a-half minutes later, Coun. Dave Thompson suggested asking staff to reduce the bike lane budget and allocate the money towards planting trees is “wedge politics in its attempt to get people who support more trees to oppose people who support bike lanes or vice versa.”

At this, Gardiner called a point of order taking issue with “wedge politics” being used.

“It’s not even my motion, I don’t agree with it, but,” Gardiner said, before being interrupted by Alto.

“Okay folks, one minute please, we’re gonna take a break right now. We’re gonna break for 10 minutes. We’re all gonna walk outside and take a breath,” Alto said. “And then we’re gonna come back and do the work that’s before us.”

Other council items of note

Other than the budget discussion, there were a number of other Victoria council agenda items that CHEK News has been following that were voted on but not discussed.

The Pandora Boulevard Washroom motion calling for the provincial government to provide a temporary washroom on or near the 900 block of Pandora passed unanimously.

An update on the MNP Governance Review Report was received by council. It showed that 23 of the 30 recommendations have been completed and implemented, while seven remain in progress. This was briefly discussed, with Gardiner noting she plans to bring forward motions to further the work on some of the completed actions.

The Roundhouse rezoning application received its first and second reading, and now only the third reading remains in the project that has been ongoing since 2008. This will come back for a public hearing in the new year.

The new rules reducing the number of days that bylaw has to hold property seized from homeless residents from the current 30 down to 14 was passed unanimously without discussion. Council briefly went into an in camera meeting to receive legal advice in relation to this motion.

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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