Councillor Cal Renwick says learning the details of the city budget has made him regret some of his pre-election criticisms of the city.
“Honestly I feel I need to make a public apology for all the rants I have made over the years, not knowing exactly what the facts were,” the first-time councillor told the Star this week.
“I was uninformed.”
Since November, Nelson city councillors have attended seven full-day meetings to develop the 2019 budget, on which they will place their stamp of approval this spring.
Council had discussions with city departments including planning, police, fire, public works, garbage, parks, human resources, hydro, the youth centre and transit.
They heard explanations from the city’s chief financial officer Colin McClure about the complexities of revenue, expenses, assets, liabilities, debt, reserves, capital projects, investments, taxation, and grants.
Following this deep immersion, the Star asked the five rookie councillors what surprised them the most.
Renwick said the workings of the city are more complex and intricate than he thought, and he used public works an example.
“The maintenance of the parks and of the roads, the plowing, sanding, paving, pothole repair, and then water and sewer and what it takes to maintain that, the amount of coordination and people, the scheduling,” he said.
“You have to have the people with the expertise to make that happen. To me it was an eye-opener.”
He had similar revelations about the planning department, gaining understanding of why it might take some time to get a permit.
“I had no idea. No idea.”
He also said he appreciates the amount of reserves the city sets aside for specific purposes such as water, sewer, and buildings.
“I think people would be amazed at the amount of reserves that we have for the different departments for a rainy day, and about how financially responsible the city is.”
The Star proposed to Renwick that some of his election supporters might conclude that he’s a victim of city hall management spin. The budget presentations have subverted his commitment to dealing with what those voters see as out-of-control spending.
“It’s still very early and I think we’re all still getting our feet wet,” he said. “Yes, city staff brings us the financial information and provides us with the hows and whys. It’s our job to question the process and look for ways to save taxpayer dollars. As a group I feel we have asked the tough financial questions of all city departments.”
Renwick said the city needs to do a better job of communicating and the public needs to do a better job of becoming informed and engaged.
Councillor Brittny Anderson said one of her big takeaways is the rule of thumb that any expenditure of $90,000 results in a one per cent property tax increase.
She said she is glad to see the city budgeting for climate change mitigations such as flood preparation maps, new sewer pipes, emergency operations, and improvements in region-wide transportation.
“But I still see a lot of opportunities that we need to take advantage of, seeing we can do more and better, decreasing our GHG emissions as much as possible.”
She said she’s learned that the city budget and the budget of the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) are quite intertwined, and she would like to see more members of the public paying attention to the RDCK and attending its meetings.
“There is a lack of community witnessing at the RDCK. I think people should take time to watch what is happening there, because their tax dollars are also going to the RDCK and it has a big impact on Nelson.”
Councillor Rik Logtenberg said the city is in better financial shape than he thought, mostly because of strong reserves that are annually set aside for water, sewer, buildings, hydro, and more.
He said he is surprised and concerned by the cost of road construction and repair.
“Cars do not pay for themselves. They cause more damage and are more expensive to the city than they contribute in parking fees by a long shot.
“When we drive and hit a pothole it is a visceral reaction or when they can’t find a parking place you feel it directly, whereas with water, it just comes out of the tap, it always does, at least so far. People tend to think of parking as a right.
Logtenberg said fire and police are a bigger part of the budget (about 15 per cent) than he expected.
And he is concerned about the financial relationship between the city and the RDCK. He said there is an imbalance between how much Nelson contributes to rural services versus how little RDCK pays into city services that rural residents use.
Councillor Jesse Woodward said the budget sessions changed how he looks at the city.
“Before I was a councillor I would just look at the surface of the city. But now I understand the infrastructure under the streets, behind the walls, overhead, up in our water source.
“When you are walking around and looking around, all that is in the budget.”
He said he was impressed by a presentation by public works director Colin Innes about the expenses and planning required to keep the streets paved.
In general he was impressed by the complexity of the budget.
“The budget is a touchy subject for a lot of people because it is their money. People want to feel when they pay their taxes, that money is being used most efficiently. From what I have seen the city is in a good financial position.”
Councillor Keith Page said he has gained increased insight into the budget relationship between the city and the RDCK, particularly with regard to the Nelson and District Community Complex.
“When you get your tax bill, the RDCK will be part of it,” Page said.
He said he has learned that the city has done a good job of creating financial reserves for water, sewer and buildings. But for sidewalks and streets, not so much.
“I understand there is the side of things where you have short term demands — get all those potholes done, and those can be in conflict with long term demands like lets make it so the road doesn’t get as many potholes in general and cost less to maintain for the future.”
Page said he wants the public to realize that when they pay their taxes “they are an investment that was already paid by generations before us so that we can have what we have now, and it’s our turn to pay ours to build a community that is better for our children and grandchildren.
“Taxes are not a bad thing. Being anti-tax just to get the smallest number at the end of the day is a path to ruin. We need to look for places that we can spend money that will make more money.”