'Hope and prayer' budget hikes taxes, adds dozen officers

City of Richmond's finance department sets aggressive budget, Steveston interurban tram to be fully restored

Richmond is set to receive a dozen new RCMP officers, meanwhile residents will see a property tax hike of 3.1 per cent for 2016, after Richmond city council approved the city’s operating budget Monday evening.

Last week, councillors tasked general manager of finances Andrew Nazareth to redistribute money for new police officers to avoid a tax increase beyond the recommended three per cent.

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Nazareth subsequently cut previously budgeted surpluses from various departments, increased the city’s predicted revenues, dipped into reserves to the tune of about $200,000 and recommended hiring just 12 officers, as opposed to the 17 requested by Richmond RCMP.

“We’ve cut every division in the city to fund these police officers. It takes a little bit of a risk, but if we use past performance to forecast our future we can hope to continue with those surpluses,” said Nazareth.

Coun. Alexa Loo asked whether or not this was a “hope and a prayer” budget.

Nazareth said there was little wiggle room if the city is faced with external costs or market shifts, particularly when it comes to a possible decline in building permits, which set a record this year.

Loo voted for the budget, but said council was making the decision on the officers from a budgetary perspective, not a community safety one.

This year, RCMP headquarters in Ottawa authorized Richmond to hire 200 officers, but the city budgeted for just 190. Typically, each year, the RCMP has not allocated enough officers, although this year it did (191).

Earlier in the day, Superintendent Rendall Nesset told council’s finance committee the dozen officers would be “signed, sealed and delivered” within 12 months.

He said the new officers would mean current officers can stay within their core responsibilities, instead of being pulled away to help deal with major events when they happen.

Coun. Chak Au voted against the plan for a dozen officers (the part of the budget that requires more financial risk, and which was separated on paper for a separate vote) because he said the costs and risks were too high and he wanted to wait for a decision on a municipal police force.

Councillors Bill McNulty and Carol Day both voted against the overall operating budget (2.1 per cent tax increase), but voted for the dozen police officers. 

In another separate vote, Au, along with Day and McNulty, also voted against an additional one per cent tax hike for infrastructure reserves.

“Why not 0.5 per cent?” asked Au at the committee.

“Why not two per cent?” replied Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who supports the reserve tax.

“Richmond is rich in assets. I don’t see why we have to keep putting one per cent into reserves,” Au told the Richmond News.

Notably, Coun. Ken Johnston was absent from council.

After Brodie and councillors Loo, Harold Steves, Derek Dang and Linda McPhail all voted in favour of the operating budget, 12 officers and reserve tax, Brodie tabled a motion to fund the Steveston interurban tram restoration with casino revenue.

Day, McPhail, Au and Dang flipped their decision last week at committee level to not fund the tram and joined McNulty, Steves and Brodie to approve the $396,000 restoration.

“Surely our biggest heritage item should be a part of the Canada 150 celebration” in 2017, said Brodie.

Director of Arts, Culture and Heritage Services Jane Fernyhough said the tram would be outfitted with a new roof and classic features such as leather seating and brass finishing.

“We will make it like it was before,” she said.

The city has annual projected revenues of $277 million and by law must balance the budget. Salaries account for $136 million worth of expenditures, or 49 per cent of the operating budget. Total expenditures will rise by 2.95 per cent in 2016.

(Full budget report from the city)

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