It was budget night Tuesday at city hall and a much larger than usual crowd showed up.
The 2015 financial plan was the leanest in almost 20 years with a 1.49 tax rate increase — which is about $23 more in taxes on a typical Chilliwack home.
The budget passed unanimously by council at the end of the night, but at least two speakers said the tax increase should have been dropped to zero.
The big-ticket budget items include the hiring of two extra RCMP officers this year, two firefighters and a firefighter trainer, along with one more bylaw enforcement officer in Chilliwack.
Road repairs will roll out to the tune of $12.6 million over four years, for example, while one of the big topics of discussion was the new $6.5 million curling facility being planned for 2018.
It’s going to be a multipurpose year-round recreational facility.
Coun. Sam Waddington stirred up substantial interest in the budget process at the last meeting after asking some probing questions about city priorities, like the curling rink replacement. He stressed the need for more public input and was credited by some as the catalyst for the excellent turnout, and there was a lot of commentary offered.
Familiar faces included former mayor/MLA John Les and a former mayoral candidate Cameron Hull, and two perennial budget commentators Gary Raddysh and Bryden Nelmes.
Chilliwack Curling Club manager Bruce Renwick gave an impassioned speech mapping out the strong need for a new curling facility, set to replace the one that is more than 60 years old. He was backed by several club members and curling advocates, who were in the crowd of about 70.
Gary Raddysh made his annual pilgrimage to ask for a zero-per cent tax increase.
“I say the city must learn to live within its means,” he said, later adding that Chilliwack was still in need to tax relief, despite the lowest increase in many years.
A tax rate “that is pegged to inflation is a good start,” he noted, but wondered why any increase at all was coming this year.
“It’s time to go all the way to zero until we see an extended period of economic growth.”
Louis Traboin also said he felt the modest increase was still to much and gave a stern reminder to council that they were “here to represent all of Chilliwack.”
Even one per cent increase for those on a fixed income would be hard to handle. Chilliwack has the lowest tax rate compared to other communities in the Lower Mainland, but Traboin said he didn’t care about that.
“I don’t care because I don’t live there,” he said.
He described Chilliwack finances as a never-ending shortfall, and asked if every penny of last year’s budget was spent, like the snow removal budget.
Wendy Major was not in favour of tax reduction, holding up the book, “Tax is Not a Four Letter Word.”
“I didn’t see any mention of those who are living rough, or living in the streets,” Major said.
Laura Campbell asked for better lighting of downtown streets, to help improve the downtown and prevent crime.
Bryden Nelmes had many questions and comments, including asking council if they ever considered holding the budget meeting earlier in the process so citizens could offer feedback before council approved it.
“Even though there was a good turnout, historically there hasn’t been,” he said.
Brent Bogart of Chilliwack Minor Baseball said baseball felt like the “poor cousin” and wondered if the sport could see facility upgrades, maybe a new stadium, like the one proposed for curling.
“How does one get on a budget line like that?” he asked.
John Les was one of the people giving Coun. Waddington the nod for sparking the high level of public interest in budget discussions.
The former mayor and MLA said he is “amazed” at the Vedder area traffic congestion and commented if the city was going to spend almost $8 million on Promontory Road improvements it should provide the “solution” to gridlock.
He touched on the houses owned by City of Chilliwack on Panorama Ridge, suggesting some could be sold to free up capital of maybe $12 million to $15 million.
“There’s a very significant asset there,” Les noted.
On the subject of downtown revitalization and the money spent on it over the years, “maybe we need to quit throwing taxpayers’ money” at the problem.
Cameron Hull praised the asked about the city’s plan for property acquisition and the $3.95 million.
Coun. Jason Lum summed up the night after the last speaker finished: “It was great to see that amount of public participation.”
Coun. Waddington was thrilled by the turnout and the range of feedback received, adding “that is what this process is all about.”
He said he watched as only two people showed up to last year’s budget meeting, so “seeing this many is heartwarming.”
Coun. Chuck Stam said the lowest tax rate in years was “history” in the making for Chilliwack, and that the budget meeting was probably the best attended that he’d ever seen, and thanked Coun. Waddington.
“People were discussing the budget, something that hasn’t happened too often.”
Mayor Sharon Gaetz urged residents to keep offering feedback, as city reps struggle to offer services “from twinkle to twilight.”
“For those who think their issues were not addressed tonight, I urge you to keep us aware of them,” Gaetz said, adding later it shows that “when you’re patient and thrifty, good things will happen.”