Taxes set to climb 2.98% this year

Property taxes are expected to climb $54 for the average Richmond homeowner this year after civic politicians endorsed the city's 2012 budget Monday.

A 2.98 per cent tax increase is promised in the operating budget, which Mayor Malcolm Brodie called "prudent."

"We are adding one level of service so we can give out more money to community groups through the grants program. That's the only additional level that's in it," he said. "I think that deserves some positive attention."

Council has added $190,784 to the annual budget to boost community grants. One-third of the additional tax would be deposited into an account earmarked for infrastructure replacement, with the rest of the increase largely going to salary increases, according to a staff report.

The city is budgeting $2.6 million for new salary, but unionized city workers have yet to land on a contract for 2012. The collective agreements for CUPE locals 718 (inside workers) and 394 (outside workers) expired Dec. 31, 2011.

Robert Gilchrist, president of Local 718, said he anticipates bargaining will begin next week.

"We're keeping a very close eye as to what's been coming down around the province. We're watching what those settlements are," said Gilchrist.

Following the last round of bargaining, the city and its unionized workers agreed to a five-year deal worth 17.5 per cent in wage increases.

City spokesperson Ted Townsend said at this point all the city can do is estimate the contract costs for the 2012 budget.

Coun. Ken Johnston called the tax increase "extremely reasonable, extremely fair." He said while most people wish for no increase, that proved a "tremendous mistake" when council opted for zero per cent over a decade ago.

Launching a preemptive strike against critics, the mayor characterized the tax increase as 1.98 per cent, with an additional one per cent going into savings.

"(Critics) inevitably ignore additions to your reserves—putting money away for a rainy day," said Brodie.

On Monday city council also endorsed a $72.6-million capital budget—the lowest spending in eight years.

New parks are among the items on the plan, including a $1-million play-and-picnicking area at Terra Nova Rural Park. Designed with an agriculture and heritage theme, the project is expected to be complete by year's end.

An $850,000 park is also planned along the Middle Arm dyke between No. 2 Road Bridge and the oval, and Garden City Park stands to get a $500,000 boost in 2012.

Park improvements are also expected to come to West Cambie, as $650,000 is being set aside for a greenway and neighbourhood park in the redeveloping Alexandra neighbourhood.

Road projects—including widening portions of Nelson Road, Westminster Highway and No. 6 Road—and upgrades to water mains and pump stations also weigh heavily in 2012 spending.

The budget also sets cash aside for smaller projects, such as $133,000 for the first year of a five-year program to reinforce access covers in light standards, with an aim to cut down on wire theft.

As for city debt, Andrew Nazareth, the city's general manager of finance, said outstanding bills include the No. 2 Road Bridge and the Terra Nova lands purchase. The bridge will be paid off next year; Terra Nova lands in 2014, Nazareth said.

City council is expected to ratify the budgets Feb. 13.

The tax hike follows a previously-approved increase in utility rates—raising water, sewer, garbage and recycling fees by up to $79 for homeowners.

As required by the Community Charter, the city must finalize its budgets by May 15.

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