Saanich Councillor Colin Plant:
An unprecedented 2020 Saanich Budget
On Monday night (3.24) Saanich Council met in person (likely the last time for the foreseeable future) to consider, amongst other matters, the 2020 Saanich Budget.
While the budget will be officially passed via bylaws prior to the legislatively-required date of May 31st, Council provided direction to staff to bring forward a "status quo" budget for 2020. The vote was not unanimous, it passed 6-3. (I voted in favour).
And while that may seem like a logical thing to do when facing this COVID-19 pandemic, there is a bit more to the story as this means many new Strategic Plan-based initiatives that Council was very excited to pursue, have been put on hold.
The Saanich 2020 budget process had gotten underway at the end of February. We started with departmental presentations (current and planned initiatives) and then had resource requests presentations (new initiatives).
We had learned that the maintaining of services that we had provided in 2019 was going to result in a budget increase of 3.74% or $99.59 to the average single family homeowner.
If we were to add all the resource requests (and undoubtedly this list would have been reduced), we would have seen an additional 3.36% increase adding up to 7.1%.
I don't think any member of Council was likely to support an increase of that size. And to be accurate, staff was going to bring forward a report with 1% and 2% budget reduction scenarios through strategy-based reductions. This report never made it to Council, because...
COVID-19 HIT THE CANADA.
Our response in Saanich has seen us establish an Emergency Operations Centre where we work to ensure the municipality can continue to provide the essential services and coordinate all responses to this pandemic.
Recreation centres have been closed. Playgrounds have been closed. Our Hall has been closed to the public except by appointment. So many things have happened in the past week it's hard to comprehend. So much change in such a short time seems to be the new normal.
As a result of these unprecedented times our staff late last week put forward a recommendation to Council to essentially have a roll over budget for 2020. I can only imagine this was a gut-wrenching recommendation to make because, like Council, staff had identified initiatives that would be beneficial to the municipality.
So that is how we got to last night.
When the opportunity arose, I put forward a motion to endorse the staff recommendation and see a "status quo" budget for 2020.
It gave me no pleasure to say "not now" to the new resource requests that would have helped see Saanich meet its strategic goals. It gave me no pleasure to see important advancements put off a year while we deal with this pandemic.
However, I have to recall that it is my role to look out for all of the municipality and not just those who have the same political ideology as myself. While I personally support the full suite of requests, I recognize that a 7.1% tax increase, or anything near that, is not appropriate when a pandemic is likely to cripple our economy.
One of my colleagues astutely observed that it was unlikely most Saanich residents were seeing a 3.7% increase in their wages in 2020, and were more likely to see less income as a result of COVID-19 and therefore how could we consider anything more than the status quo. I agree.
It really stung to not be able to support the additional requests to support initiatives such as active transportation and climate action. These are valuable and important responses to our community’s aspirations as stated through our Strategic Plan.
But here is where I will begin to wrap up. I fully anticipate that next year we will advance these important initiatives. These initiatives are not cancelled, they are put on pause for 2020. I commit to advancing these initiatives in 2021, and if possible, sooner. In the meantime Saanich will continue to fund programs already in place to support these community needs. We are not starting from zero. We are already doing a lot, but wanted to do more. But this, in my opinion, is not prudent at this time.
I recognize if you have read this far, you likely fit into one of three categories:
- -The increase is too high.
- -The increase is too low.
- -The increase is appropriate.
And whatever you feel, I would welcome a discussion with you.
All I can say is that I tried to find a balance for our community during these tumultuous and unprecedented times.