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Milne: Council’s intent is to ‘put house in order’

Milne: Council’s intent is to ‘put house in order’

milne column headAlmost exactly two years ago, on Nov. 15, 2014, your current Council was elected to office. It was a tough election, but the mandate and direction were clear: put our local government house in order and scale back the perceived agenda of wanton spending and change.

Putting our house in order has been challenging – much more challenging than expected. There have been setbacks and delays, although the direction and objectives have not changed.  Council has continued to move in measured and methodical ways to build an effective and responsive local government organization.

Fundamental to a ‘house in order’ is a sustainable budget with predictable revenues to match all expenditures. I will be the first to admit that Council’s efforts to manage the budget – in particular the long term 5-10 year budget – have been thwarted in many ways.  Getting a reliable, consistent ‘picture’ of the budget proved difficult in 2015 and 2016. The snapshots provided have been blurry, frequently changing and thus less reliable than what is needed as a foundation for accurate budget setting.

With new Senior Managers in place, and fresh eyes to examine long established patterns, the 2017 Budget process is providing a much clearer focus on our financial situation. It is not a pretty picture. Sechelt is clearly underfunding our annual activities and not providing for our community’s future needs.  Our Senior Management Team, all with significant experience in other local governments, are very concerned that Sechelt has not established financial plans for future reserves, infrastructure maintenance or annual operations.

The clearest example of underfunding is to compare our revenue from property taxes and fees – the only revenue sources we can control – to our annual expenses for standard, routine services. Simply ‘keeping the lights on’, with current staff and operations as expected, costs approximately $14 million.  Property taxes and fees currently bring in only $9.65 million. The shortfall of over $4 million is patched over every year with the use of reserves, a search for grants, variable revenues and one-off revenue sources . Years of austerity and political fear of tax increases have left Sechelt financially anorexic.

If we have avoided tax increases for years – even reducing taxes for our commercial properties – why not continue the same practice?  Can we kick the can a little farther down the path and at least avoid tax increases for another year? Maybe. But that approach is far from prudent. Each year we avoid paying the full costs of our activities the financial risk increases and the costs of sustainable fiscal alignment become greater.

This Council is determined to put our local government house in order. The current budget process, for the 2017 Annual budget, will be a time of reckoning.

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