Focus group: Revelstoke city spending not affordable, sustainable over long-term
Long-term financial sustainability for the City of Revelstoke is the key concern of a budget focus group that worked alongside council on the city budget this year.
A new report by the group says the city needs to take a step back from the annual budget process and take a long view on where the community is going.
The report contrasts rising spending with a declining population, saying lack of affordability is the concern.
Focus group spokesperson Betty Sloan participated in the current budget process. “We don’t think that the continued increase in services and increasing taxes every year is sustainable over the long term,” Sloan said in an interview with the Times Review. “So we’re saying hit the pause button here and really look at it on a long-term basis.”
The report suggests exploring financial sustainability initiatives such as one underway in Edmonton. “Partly visionary, partly policy, partly tactical, it should lead to rationalized service deliverables matched with realistic resourcing strategies and supporting tax policies, all that align with the values, objectives and realities of a changing Revelstoke,” states the report from the committee.
“We seem to be in the same place every year.” Sloan said of the annual rush to meet budget deadline. It prevents a closer look at service levels and costs: “What’s an appropriate service level? What do we need to sustain infrastructure going forward?”
The focus group doesn’t support the proposed 3.5 per cent tax increase this year, but want the increase pegged to an inflation index.
Spending a key worry
Taxation is just one part the affordability equation, the group found. Like other communities, households in Revelstoke are saddled with debt and face rising living costs. “Continued tax increases coupled with the rise in the cost of living in Revelstoke is eroding affordability and is not sustainable,” they write.
The report singles out service and program “creep” in Revelstoke over the past decade that has piled on costs.
The report cites new spending for transit, the aquatic centre, the first responder service, highway rescue, planning, curbside recycling, the Grizzly Plaza extension and new IT services as examples.
“We feel we need to remember that we are only 7,500 people, and we need to align our spending to reflect that reality,” they write. “We have added, and continue to add services, staff positions … yet we don’t always see the benefit of those decisions.”
The issue of tax fairness has been a central feature of the city budget process over the past few years, after commercial and industrial groups lobbied for relief. However, the group said the fairness issue is complex and the city should make reducing spending a priority over distribution of tax burden.
Proposed budget piles on more debt
The proposed budget calls for $2 million in new borrowing, something the group feels is excessive.
“We are leveraging our financial future to serve our current fiscal requirements,” They write. “Until we have control over our spending habits, we will not be able to control our tax increases and address the bigger issues of tax fairness and affordability.”
They point to development cost charges (DCC) as somewhere to explore to find funding for infrastructure projects, saying Revelstoke DCCs are currently average compared to other communities.
Is Revelstoke getting value for money?
The group feels the city could be more efficient by focusing on results instead of the work at hand.
The report flagged questions council could ask before moving ahead with new spending: “What is required in business cases? Are they adequate? How widely are they used? Do they consider risk; require whole cost on a life‐cycle basis; require rigorous definition of services and expectations aligned with city objectives?”
Focus group cites specific issues
In addition to general recommendations, the focus group flagged specific spending issues for special consideration.
– Fire protection costs continue to escalate. The group wants an exploration of alternate options, such as improved fire-proofing.
– A planned $800,000 renovation of the city hall building shouldn’t go forward without a comprehensive review of needs.
– Information Technology expenses need to be curtailed. Ad hoc spending needs to be stopped and a comprehensive IT strategy needs to be adopted.
– The group found 20 per cent of sewer and water rates are eaten up by administrative costs, something they’d like reviewed.
– The federal gas tax revenues should be directed to highest use priorities; currently they’re directed into the planning department.
It will take time
Sloan empathized with city council over the taxation issue, saying they face constant demand for new services. “We have a really good quality of life in Revelstoke,” she said. “It’s not easy. I don’t envy them.
“If you just go slash and burning, I don’t think that’s going to make people happy either. Some more thoughtful process on what’s an appropriate level of service [is needed.] Probably really looking at things differently when there’s demand for new services.”
She encouraged everyone to get involved and provide their feedback on the budget by the Mar. 28 deadline. “I think it’s admirable of city council looking for outside perspective. That’s healthy. I think they’re genuine in their interest.”
The focus group was Dale Morehouse, Betty Sloan and Nathan Weston.