Opinion: Setting spending priorities

It's a balancing act determining where Chilliwack tax dollars will be spent in the year – and decade – ahead.

Budgets, as most homeowners understand, are tricky things. Not only are there fixed costs to consider, there are spending priorities to assess and contingencies to plan for. It’s a delicate balance of fiscal wizardry, strategic premonition, and a sprinkling of luck.

A municipal budget, like the one introduced at city hall on Tuesday, is even more complex. The same challenges exist, only with a multitude of stakeholders to consider. Some ratepayers bristle at the thought of any tax increase and argue the city should do nothing but maintain roads, sewers and collect garbage. Others want libraries, parks and pools – and are prepared to pay for them.

Overall, this year, the city will spend more than $120 million.

Of that, nearly $79 million is earmarked for capital expenditures. What the city plans to spend our money on offers an interesting glimpse into the priorities that staff, politicians and stakeholders have identified – not only for this year, but the coming decade.

Some of it is pretty mundane stuff. A new ‘activated sludge system’ for the sewage treatment plant might not be on everyone’s wish list, but it still packs a $5.1 million price tag.

Other are more appreciable – and anticipated. The $1.5 million budgeted last year for an expansion of the RCMP headquarters in 2015 has shrunk to $20,000, with $2.5 million now penciled in instead for 2016.

Indeed, nothing is etched in stone, especially for the years ahead. The $12.75 million allocated last year for a municipal hall addition in 2019 has become a $1 million expenditure expected in 2018.

The $3 million allocated for a 2020 upgrade of the Cheam Leisure Centre has been pushed to 2024.

Meanwhile, replacement of the Chilliwack curling rink, which went unmentioned in last year’s capital plan despite a recommendation for replacement in the parks, recreation and culture strategic plan approved in 2013, is now budgeted for $6.5 million in 2018.

What this all illustrates is the fluidity of spending decisions at city hall. Some are driven by necessity (like an activated sludge system) while others are buffeted by shifting priorities and competing demands for finite resources.