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Property taxes set to climb in Richmond

Property tax bills are set to climb at least $39 for the average Richmond homeowner with a $607,000 home—and that tax figure could jump higher.

Homeowners are already staring down a utility bill increase of up to $130 for the average single-family home—a 10.8 per cent increase on top of the previous year's seven per cent utility hike.

Richmond council is now ironing out the city's 2011 operating budget, which is $4.6 million in the red. That means a minimum tax increase of 2.94 per cent, and city council isn't done with it yet.

On Monday, councillors demanded more information from staff, specifically an itemization of a list of possible additions that could make taxes climb even higher.

The wish list includes everything from RCMP administration staff to a community centre youth worker, fire department vehicles to No. 3 Road landscaping.

None have been recommended by city staff for this year.

Whatever final figure city council decides, some homeowners are already in for a huge tax hike, courtesy of BC Assessment.

Residential property assessments climbed significantly higher in Richmond—an average of 17 per cent—than anywhere else in the region. Some neighbourhoods saw significant spikes above that average, and those homeowners will pay more in tax—on top of whatever increase city hall approves.

The original owners of a the 1959 bungalow on Bassett Place, for example, will face a big tax bill this year. Their home climbed 46 per cent in assessed value to $890,300.

City staff salaries and benefits are the primary drivers of the budget shortfall, according to a finance department report presented to council Monday. Job cuts have been made in previous years, but none are recommended in 2011.

Other budget hits include higher RCMP contract fees and a $1.5-million grant to the Richmond Olympic Oval Corporation. The oval's other big revenue source is the Games Operating Trust, a legacy from the Olympics which gives the facility interest from a banked $40 million.

Finance director Jerry Chong noted a bright spot in the city's budget: casino revenues. The city's take from 2010 is estimated at $12.5 million—$1.4 million over budget.

City staff managed to shrink the tax increase by tapping into last year's surplus, which has yet to be calculated but could be as high as $6 million.

Using surplus funds for operating costs—funds that might dry up next year—concerned Coun. Ken Johnston, who suggested staff created "a little bit of a fudgit-budget."

"It's something we have to make up in subsequent years. It's not a real picture."

Coun. Bill McNulty had similar concerns.

"Is this a good way to take surplus to solve it for one year. Is that being fiscally prudent?”

Andrew Nazareth, general manager of finance, acknowledged the city was taking on some risk, but said he's comfortable knowing the city's building permit revenue is increasing.

"We’re confident putting these forward, knowing that there is risk associated with it, but it’s calculated risk.”

Budget talks are expected to resume Jan. 24.

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