City council should follow budget survey

It seems even when the City of Prince George asks for the views of residents, some city councillors still won’t listen to the response if it doesn’t suit what they want to do.

In the fall, the city conducted a budget consultation survey. It was an incredible success, with more than 1,000 residents filling out the online survey, compared to just 170, the average number of responses in the previous four years.

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City council received the results of the survey in December. While there were mixed results in several categories, there was one response that was crystal clear: only 18 per cent of respondents were in favour of raising taxes to offset lost revenues due to the pandemic.

The top of the list, with 66 per cent support, was to seek financial assistance from senior levels of government.

That assistance has arrived in the form of a $6.11 million COVID-19 Safe Restart Grant from the provincial government.

City council can keep property taxes frozen at last year’s rate and only spend about half of that money, tucking away the rest for next year.

When city council convenes on Feb. 8 to set this year’s tax rate, that would be the right thing to do, seeing as how it lines up with the budget survey.

While some city councillors clearly want to go in that direction – Brian Skakun and Kyle Sampson, in particular – there are at least two other city councillors (Garth Frizzell and Cori Ramsay) who want to ignore the budget survey, increase taxes this year and save more of the provincial grant for next year.

If the only concern under consideration were the financial well-being of local government, this would be prudent fiscal management. However, the financial well-being of local property owners, many of whom have already been hit hard during COVID-19, should also be considered.

If there was ever a year to give Prince George taxpayers a break, it’s this one. It also gives the city a full year to prepare for next year’s budget to make sure a hefty tax hike isn’t needed in 2022 to pay for no increase this year.

In the survey, residents identified options to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

Along with financial support from senior government, three other suggestions were backed by a majority of respondents: sell some city land (59 per cent), keep facilities closed (55 per cent) and increase user fees (53 per cent).

Ramsay rightly identified keeping Four Seasons Pool permanently closed, a $400,000 savings on this year’s budget. It would be nice to open Four Seasons until the new downtown pool under construction is ready to open but it is a relatively easy sacrifice to make and one supported by the survey.

Selling some city land offers both short-term and long-term benefits. The value of the sale offers an immediate windfall, as well as a private owner who now has to pay taxes and utilities on that property.

For decades, the City of Prince George has accumulated parcels of land, particularly downtown, on the hope that, one day real soon, a developer would descend from the heavens with big plans and lots of dough. Having the land ready to go was seen as an enticement.

How well has that worked out?

It’s time to abandon an old plan based on little more than hope that has generated minimal return on investment, especially when local residents point to it as a legitimate way to increase revenues and reduce costs.

When residents are asked to take part in a government survey, there is a reasonable expectation the politicians will take the responses into account when making decisions.

In this case, the response was clear.

No tax increase this year. 

Use senior government financial assistance to pay for it, along with selling some city land, keeping facilities closed and raising user fees.

The people have spoken.

Make it so, city council.

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