- Gayle Baker
Details of a Worrisome CRD Budget Increase of 5.6% that Could Soar to 7.6%. Why? Keep Reading. . . .
Twelve Salt Springers joined this ASK Salt Spring gathering to welcome CRD Director Gary Holman. While participants could ask anything, the focus of our conversation was the CRD 2023 Budget. (For details, see below: CRD Requisition Summary 2023.)
After our Territorial Acknowledgement, Gary spent a considerable time walking us through some of the most important details of the $7.6 million dollar Salt Spring 2023 tax requisition (excluding fees for some services such as transit, and also data for area-specific water and sewer utilities). Provisionally approved in September 2022, the final budget - with some increases in the intervening months - is slated for approval at the March 15 CRD Board meeting.
There appeared to be general agreement that no one was pleased with this year’s 5.6% increase, the largest since Gary was elected in 2018. We learned that the provisional budget proposed a 3.5% increase (the average requisition increase over the previous four-year term), but several key factors in the intervening months resulted in a further two percent increase. Voter approval of the Local Community Commission alone account for 1.5% of this increase.
While worrisome for some participants at this ASK Salt Spring gathering, Gary put this increase in some perspective by telling us that for the ‘average’ residential property on Salt Spring (assessed at $1.1 million!!!), the CRD requisition would increase from about $92 per month in 2022 to $97 per month in 2023. Gary invited us to compare this monthly cost, which funds a whole range of CRD services, to our hydro or telecommunications bills.
Gary outlined some of the major factors contributing to the CRD requisition increases, both anticipated expenditures as well as those not anticipated in the provisional budget:
While the lease of the former Middle School (SIMS) began half way through 2022, costs for the full year (including lease fees paid to school District 64, as well as maintenance and utility costs) are included in the 2023 budget. These costs also include an increased PARC requisition subsidize rents, providing community users (like ASK Salt Spring!) lower than market rates.
Additional library staff was required due to the decline in volunteers.
The increase negotiated by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)(https://www.cupe.bc.ca/2022/11/14/capital-regional-district-workers-reach-tentative-agreement/), was significantly higher than estimated in the provisional budget.
Possibly in response to local complaints of inadequate repairs, BC Transit increased its bus maintenance fees more than were anticipated in the provisional budget. (All buses are due to be replaced this spring).
We continue to spend more each year (almost $600,000 this year) to truck our liquid waste (septage and treated sewage sludge) off-island. Gary is hopeful that an Options Study will result in identifying the best way to reduce hauling and tipping fee costs, possibly by dewatering.
The Local Community Commission (LCC) - approved by voters on October 15 - has added an additional 1.5% to the provisional budget approved in September. Much of this increase is the one-time cost of $70,000 for the the May 27, 2023 LCC election. On-going costs for this LCC will be at least $35,000 a year ($10,000 a year for four Local Commissioners somewhat reduced by a $5,000 annual LCC provincial grant).
Some participants spoke of the enormous amount of work expected of Local Commissioners, questioning the wisdom of an annual stipend of only $10,000 per year. Gary replied that he based the stipend on neighbouring municipalities. For example, councillors for Sidney and North Saanich, with populations similar to Salt Spring, get a stipend of $15,000-$17,000 a year, but, unlike these councillors, our Local Commissioners are not responsible for land use, roads, and policing.
Some participants were convinced that costs for our LCC will be more than estimated. While Gary agreed this is a possibility, he reminded us that any increases to the cost of the LCC would have to be decided by those we elect as Local Commissioners.
Gary did tell us of some cost reductions that mitigated the CRD requisition increase:
Re-negotiated fire dispatch services, now provided by Saanich, rather than Langford.
Reduced transfers to capital and operating reserves for some services.
Reduced Grant in Aid allocation due to Provincial COVID relief funding and the fact that there were year end surpluses for 2021 and 2022.
The proposed provisional requisition increase for a full time coordinator for the Community Economic Sustainability Commission (CESC) was not included in the final budget. Instead, funding will be provided to local nonprofits for community economic development projects through contribution agreements. These nonprofit agreements are expected to include Ganges beautification and continuation of the Agricultural Alliance Grow Local initiative. He reminded us that nonprofits offer our community a very good deal by supporting our energetic (and inexpensive) volunteers to improve our community. Although only $20,0000 is currently allocated for these nonprofit agreements, Gary hopes that, with demonstrated success, the LCC (which will take over the CESC and other island-wide services this year) will increase this type of funding.
Gary suggested that consideration of the CRD requisition should also include the substantial grants or provincial funding that Salt Spring has received - over $30 million since 2018. These grants have helped to fund affordable and supportive housing, Ganges Hill repaving, transit and active transportation, sewage treatment, composting, and PARC projects.
Also not identified in this requisition is our Community Works (federal gas tax) allocation of approximately $600,000 a year and roughly $250,000/year to support our free recycling. He also noted that Salt Spring will benefit from the recently-announced Growing Communities (https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2023PREM0008-000171) provincial infrastructure funding, details to be provided later in March.
Some participants expressed frustration with the process.
Why did we get this budget mere days before it is due to be approved? Gary replied that he provided a detailed Driftwood article on the CRD provisional budget back in September and another article on the final budget on March 1. He also noted that while he has been the only CRD Director in recent memory to provide public budget presentations, part of the rationale for establishing the LCC is to provide greater opportunity for public discussion of the budget.
A participant asked: Why does the format have to be so annoying? Instead of a PDF that switches from portrait to landscape from page to page, why cannot an easier-to-understand spreadsheet be utilized?
A participant stated: There should have been large, formal public meeting rather than this informal ASK Salt Spring conversation. Gary replied that numbers who come to the budget discussions he has hosted every year since he was elected have generally had low attendance. Comparing the 56 who came to ASK Salt Spring last week to the 12 this week, one could be forgiven for assuming that there are few Salt Springers who care enough to dive into a complex CRD budget.
Why in the world does staff need, for example, a $50,000 electric car? When a participant stated that he could find at least $200,000 that could be cut from this budget, Gary welcomed details from him. (After this ASK Salt Spring gathering, Gary checked with CRD staff. He learned that this allocation for an EV truck will replace a 13 year old vehicle that is getting old and very expensive to repair. Its purchase will reduce future operating and maintenance costs as well as contributing to our climate objectives.)
We discussed one unexpected complication to this budget: A CRD Director has presented a late proposal to increase the regional CRD requisition budget by $3.6 million to provide additional funding for affordable housing. This proposal will be discussed at the March 15 Board meeting.
There is some justification for this request: the current CRD Regional Housing First program (which funded IWAV’s Croftonbrook project) is almost fully subscribed. This proposed requisition increase would provide CRD immediate, interim funding that could be used to partner with other provincial and federal housing organizations when opportunities for affordable housing projects become available.
But, with approval of this proposal, our requisition would increase by another 2% to a total of 7.6%. With some Salt Springers feeling that the 5.6% increase was already too steep, Gary is not sure how he will vote on this proposal on March 15. Given the urgency of our housing crisis and Salt Spring’s success accessing regional housing funding, he may support a more modest increase rather the requested $3.6 million. Gary has also posed this question to the SSI Housing Council, but, ultimately, this will be CRD Board decision.
This led to a brief discussion of shared regional services. There are over 200 CRD services, including a number of region-wide services in which Salt Spring participates. The costs for these regional services are generally apportioned on assessed values in each community. In 2022, our assessments rose more than the CRD average, which meant that Salt Spring paid a larger percentage of these shared services. However, in 2023, our assessed values increased 12%, about the same rate as the region, so our share of region-wide services will remain the same.
We have done quite well with some of CRD’s regional programs: In the last term alone, Salt Spring received over $6 million for Croftonbrook and $3.7 million for Lady Minto Hospital. On the other hand, despite these wins, Gary agrees that we should be receiving more benefits from CRD Regional Parks, particularly from its regional trail initiatives.
Leaving the details of the budget, Gary spoke briefly of a possible change in financial strategy. He noted that local services on Salt Spring would be virtually debt free within 5 years. While very good news, he pointed out that, without borrowing, it would be difficult to fund aging infrastructure needs, including the pool, Centennial Park boardwalk, and SIMS.
Also, paying cash for amenities our community want could result in long delays. These amenities include:
Improvements identified in master plans for Rainbow Road and Portlock Park,
Repurposing of the Ganges fire hall site,
Active transportation/accessibility investments in Ganges and Fulford,
Projects to reduce our liquid waste hauling costs, and
The list goes on. . . .
Gary believes that it may be fiscally prudent to carry some debt to address these infrastructure needs (and opportunities) sooner, rather than facing much higher costs later. Gary cited the example of saving to buy a home, only to find that home price increases continually outpace the savings rate. Would it be wiser to borrow to invest in important infrastructure and amenities sooner rather than later? This is one of the issues with which an LCC must grapple.
As 1:00 approached, we shifted gears away from a complicated and somewhat worrisome budget. Gary was asked when the Request for Proposals for the HarbourWalk designs would be released. Replying “soon,” he was proven right as the RFP was released by the end of that day Friday, March 10. (https://www.crd.bc.ca/about/contracts-rfps/Current/ssi-2023-008-rfp-ganges-harbourwalk-active-transportation-project).
Concerns were expressed about an apparent delay in the agreement between Dragonfly Commons (a proposed 30 home ownership community on Drake Road with priority for workers) and CRD concerning the establishment of a CRD water utility. Gary has asked CRD Integrated Water staff in Victoria, and they have agreed to assist our local staff to move this important project forward.
And, almost done with an entire ASK Salt Spring without discussing our roads :), we closed with concerns about the damage to our buses as a result of our rough roads, and bewilderment about why the Ganges speed limit has not already been reduced to 30 km/h. The information that speed reduction recommendations are expected to be included in a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI)-commissioned cycling safety did not satisfy participants. Neither did the MoTI promise to review our Ganges speed limits when they paved Ganges Hill. The Do it now! sentiment resounded.
And, suddenly, it was 1:00 and time to go, but not without thanking Gary for coming to this ASK Salt Spring gathering to give us worrisome budget news, listening to our suggestions, and his genuine request for help to decide how to vote on the proposed $3.6 million increase for CRD Housing. (Thanks, Gary!)
Please join us Friday, March 17, 11-1, in the Middle School Lobby, to welcome Lady Minto Hospital’s Erin Price-Lindstrom,
What would you like to ask Erin?
Can you give us an update of completion dates for our new Lady Minto Hospital?
There is much concern about staffing. Do you share these concerns? If so, do you have a plan for addressing these concerns?
What do you see as the biggest challenges for Lady Minto in 2023?
What do you see as the biggest opportunities for Lady Minto in 2023?
What can we as a community do to help?
Please join us Friday, March 17, 11-1, to welcome Erin!
ASK Salt Spring now has ongoing funding! A heartfelt THANK-YOU to the Institute for Sustainability, Education, and Action (I-SEA) and its Executive Director, Peter Allen !!!
***New fundraising option***
You can now give the Return It change you earn from your bottles to ASK Salt Spring: Account #230.
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Institute for Sustainability, Education, and Action (I-SEA), Country Grocer through Save-a-Tape and Gift Cards and Island Savings’ Simple Generosity grant.
A heartfelt Thank-You!