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Richmond eyes record building plan

Minoru Sports Pavilion will be flattened under a new plan to bring a modern aquatics centre and expanded seniors centre to Minoru Park.  - Matthew Hoekstra photo
Minoru Sports Pavilion will be flattened under a new plan to bring a modern aquatics centre and expanded seniors centre to Minoru Park.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

Property taxes are set to climb 2.96 per cent and bureaucrats will manage the priciest list of capital projects in Richmond's history next year, following preliminary approval of city budgets Monday.

Civic politicians gave unanimous support to a record-busting $185.9-million capital plan for 2014. They also approved a $317.2-million operating budget for next year that comes with a tax increase of $42 for the average homeowner—but not without dissent.

Ahead of the required final council votes, Coun. Bill McNulty led a charge at Monday's meeting against the tax hike.

"The taxpayer literally needs a break and needs some breathing room," said the seven-term councillor.

Backed by councillors Ken Johnston and Derek Dang, the three Richmond First councillors favoured a smaller tax increase of 1.96 per cent. That would eliminate a one per cent contribution to the city's reserve account, which is used to build and maintain infrastructure.

Johnston said the city's policy of bolstering its reserves has been "extremely solid." But he said taxpayers in private industries have seen cutbacks, and costs for electricity, gas, car insurance and city utilities—rising by up to $55 annually per household next year—are all going up.

"Everything's going through the roof, and frankly the taxpayer is feeling pounded," he said. "I'd like to send a message that we've done our absolute best."

Others, like Coun. Evelina Halsey-Brandt said the needs of the city are great, with aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced.

"It's OK to send a message, but I think it's the wrong message. Especially now when we've committed so much of our reserves to the projects that are at hand, and we know how many more are at the table waiting for us."

Mayor Malcolm Brodie said after years of low taxes in the '90s—including a tax freeze in 1999—the city "was getting into somewhat perilous territory" with reserve income on a downward slope.

"It's all too easy to score points at this point by not putting money into reserves, but I think it's a very shortsighted strategy."

To balance the operating budget for 2014, city staff contend taxes have to rise. But the city's average tax increase over the past five years "remains comparable to other cities in Metro Vancouver," according to a city finance report.

The tax hike for 2013 was nearly the same, at 2.98 per cent.

In 2014, costs will rise for budget staples such as policing and road repaving, staff say. Salaries are also driving up costs. Unionized workers are receiving a 1.75 per cent raise this year as per their collective agreement.

One new police officer is also included in the proposed budget. The officer would be assigned to the Richmond RCMP's Quick Response Team, which focuses on prolific offenders and crime trends.

As for the city's massive capital budget, most—$120.1 million—will be consumed by a trio of projects approved by council a month ago: a new pool, seniors centre and fire hall in Minoru Park.

A further $32.1 million is earmarked for infrastructure upgrades, including road repaving, drainage projects and water mains.

Other costs include $8.1 million for equipment—including computer software and new vehicles—$6.6 million for park upgrades and $5 million for land acquisition.

The previous capital budget totalled just $68.6 million, about one-third the cost of the 2014 plan.

2014 capital budget highlights

•$76.9m: Minoru Aquatic Centre/seniors centre

•$32.1m: roads, sewer, drainage, waterworks projects

•$21.5m: Fire Hall No. 1 replacement

•$15m: Contingency for major projects

•$6.7m: City Centre Community Centre

•$5 million: land acquisition

•$3.7m: technology and software

•$2m: city vehicle replacement

•$1.5m: Cambie Mueller Park

•$1.2m: Richmond Fire-Rescue vehicles and equipment

•$1.2m: library materials

•$990,000: Richmond Ice Centre equipment replacement

•$857,000: affordable housing projects

•$850,000: The Gardens Agricultural Park

•$690,000: public art

•$650,000: Terra Nova play environment washrooms and landscaping

•$625,000: Minoru Chapel restoration

•$600,000: Minoru 2 field retrofit

•$450,000: Minoru track resurfacing

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