Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Tax Hike prophecy of the fall, became Tax Hike Reality on Monday as Council approves 12.5% rate increase

For those that follow City Council with some regularity, the decision of Monday night of the need for a significant tax increase should not come as a surprise. 

For the most part, City Council members have been telegraphing that prospect since they took their seats following the fall election.

It was in December of 2022, that the first of the drumbeat of 'taxes a comin' was heard, with Councillor Wade Niesh noting of the financial clouds that were on the horizon as Council discussed Community Grant Requests of that time

But you know as in the report as noted we are coming into a challenging year, this year  for our budget coming up and I have a hard time wanting to add to that hard time that's going to be coming for us. And it's probably not going to be a wonderful year  for our budget of 2023 I think we've got a a lot of challenges with inflation and many other things on the horizon....  -- Councillor Wade Niesh in December 2022

Monday, Fiscal prophecy became Budgetary fact. as the Council membership provided their guidance to staff to move forward with the Financial Plan drafted by CFO Corinne Bomben and put in place the 12.5% tax increase that will be required to deliver on those financial themes.

Monday's final conversation on the Budget was a rather lengthy project running in total some 106 minutes on the night. 

The Council process one that perhaps could use some streamlining to avoid what became a repetitive night of talking points, broken up into three segments.

The First featured one final briefing from the CFO on the Budget, with a few new nuggets of information for Council to consider. The final report providing some background on the simulation project and feedback that the City received from the four week  online engagement process.

Ms. Bomben also noted of one new capital project, that related to wastewater infrastructure.

"Since the draft budget was released there have been a couple of changes to the water and sewer utility Capital plan which have been identified in the report for council. The changes made to existing capital request utilize grants, surplus and Reserves.

One new capital request has been added to the sewer utility and relates to the water works that needs to be conducted. 

For efficiency while the water works are in progress it makes sense to replace the wastewater infrastructure which is of the same vintage. The city is currently working on getting grants for this, however presently it is anticipated  that the City will need to fund this work through borrowing" -- CFO Corinne Bomben

Ms. Bomben's presentation was then followed by some extensive commentary by Council members who mostly revived some of the themes they have spoken to previous on Budget issues, each of the members picking a few topics up for some further clarification.

Among the themes covered by Council were areas of note related to staffing positions, equipment purchases which were raised by Councillor Forster.

Councillor Adey observed on some of the travel and opportunities that the city has taken to reduce cost in those areas.

Mr. Adey also noted that the city is approaching its borrowing limit and the impact that may have on the city's progress moving forward.

"I understand that given the current revenue pressures and despite continuing efforts to address them, we are approaching our borrowing limit under the regulations. And I note that the new request to borrow 20 million towards twinning the sewage and I understand the logic behind doing so.

We're told that this does get us towards our borrowing limit ... what I'm wondering is, is there a public facing way to provide information regarding specific debit items and costs on a sort of a total,or annual or month payment basis. 

Where we are in terms of when particular items are going to be paid off so that  space is created, the source of the funding for payment ... and then the hardest part, and I appreciate that nobody has a crystal ball, is there anything that is anticipated towards future items -- Councillor Nick Adey

Ms. Bomben's reply pointed to a number of reports and other streams of information that can be found by searching the archives of the city website.

Perhaps mindful that most resident's are not quite that savvy towards researching the labyrinth of the city website, the Councillor then asked for a more user friendly option towards more easily accessible information as something to consider.

"What you've done is you've referred to two or three different places, I guess what I'm asking about is whether there's a way to kind of pull that together into a simpler format that is more easily understood by people like myself who don't always know everything I need to know about accounting. I think there may be a benefit in terms of transparency with the public in finding a way to do that." --  Councillor Nick Adey

A suggestion that Ms. Bomben observed that she was happy to take the suggestion towards.

Other council queries looked at included a look at the plan for road remediation, with Councillor Niesh observing that perhaps considering the use of cement over asphalt may provide for more longer lasting roads.

Councillor Cunningham spoke in favour of the volume of travel that has taken place and outlined some of the benefits he believes the in person sessions have delivered to the community.

Mayor Pond also followed up on the themes borrowing, asking the CFO for some background on how the City will approach the required funding for the upcoming plans.

"Much like with a homeowner, your income basically determines how much you can  goo ahead and borrow,  so we're no different. 

We have a significant capital plan that we need to address over the next ten years  and our borrowing ability is very diminished, based on our revenues and also because of inflation at the moment and the interest rate costs.

So we are having to be very careful about what we select to borrow for, again, it's coming down as to what's mandated and what's needed for health and safety.

But there is a process, if Council goes ahead and approves this capital budget with the whole five year financial plan then staff will be coming forward with a Loan Authorization bylaw,  much like we did with the RCMP and we did with the water dam loan and the land fill loan.

Council can go ahead  direct whether we are going to go through the Alternative Approval process or if we go to a referendum and then the public will have a say on whether or not they are OK with us borrowing the funds that we need in order to conduct the work, and that generally takes six months   -- CFO Corinne Bomben

As the first wave of Council discussion for the evening came to a close, Mr. Pond then observed of the nature of the work load on city staff.

"I think it's worth the public noting that a number of our staff members carry several portfolios, we are definitely not over staffed at the top" 

The Budget program then shifted into the Regular Council session, which provided for the last of the public engagement opportunities and the return of Mr. Terry Sawka to speak of his thoughts on the city's financial planning, his contribution the only one for the public commentary period of the night.

Mr. Sawka observed how he saw the Council requests as that of a Christmas Wish List Budget with a number of items he described as curious. 

Two of the items on the spending program were of some concern for him.

He noted of the ongoing progress towards the city's interests in the McCarthy GM property and if it really was a necessary move.

"It's my understanding that the City is currently paying 25,000 dollars a month to lease that property ... there's a further two million dollar cost to the taxpayers of Prince Rupert to renovate a fairly new building ... Two million dollars is a lot of money to create another Taj Mahal in Prince Rupert and I just wonder whether at this time and date something like that is a necessity In Prince Rupert. 

He also had concerns over the city's pilot project for wastewater facility off of Omenica.

"The last item I have is the proposed creation of a swamp. 

A pilot project in the middle of our Island and I'm sure twenty five, thirty,  forty years down the road somebody is going to stand up and say why did we do that?

It's not a proven factor, it's going to channel all the water and whatever else down to that area there, there's been no environmental studies done, no approval by the  Government, Provincial or Federal but we're already included in the budget a fair amount of money to go ahead with the project"

The night's only participant from the public gallery also observed of the pass through costs of the tax increase, noting that homeowners will feel impact as well as those renting properties who will see increases as the tax rate hike hits.

His final comments came in the form of some guidance for Council members as they prepared to make their Budget decision.

"What I'm going to say to this Council is: That you've taken an oath and you have a Fiduciary repsonsiblity to the taxpayers of Prince Rupert not to managers, who want a new truck or pet peeve projects that they think that they should have"

Council Members returned to the discussion shortly after Mr. Sawka's presentation, much of their commentary revisiting previous themes on the evening or during the Budget process.

Most of that period was taken up defending the various project requests, with some focus on the points raised by Mr. Sawka earlier in the evening.

Councillor Adey observed on the limitations that the city's budget engagement process presented, one where questions asked but he public may or may not get answered. 

"I just want to acknowledge the questions and perhaps there's an opportunity for us to,given the awkwardness of the Question and Answers of the Committee of the Whole, maybe if I can do my best to ask a couple of those questions and see what we can find out. 

Because  as you have said, I think the whole point of having that item in the Agenda is to create a dialogue with the public and I think we need to respect that" -- Councillor Nich Adey

The councillor then took up a few of the items on the List that has been raised from the most recent commentary in the public segment.

Operations Director Pucci was offered the chance to speak to both the McCarthy project and that of the Omenica Wastewater plans, the Director for the most part returning to his previous overviews to Council at previous sessions.

His reviews returning to his view that both projects are viable ones and are required as the best option for the community.

As he has in past years, Councillor Randhawa's once again made a call to reassess how the city uses the Legacy Inc. financial mechanism. 

The Mayor turned to the City Manager to offer up guidance towards if any more use of Legacy was possible for this year to soften the tax hike hit.

Dr. Buchan delivered the news that any further use of Legacy funds for the budget was not on the horizon.

"We did visit that question with the Legacy Board and the answer is No, there has been an extraordinary amount provided this year, which has saved I'm not sure 15 %, 16%, of a tax increase with the contribution this year. But what's remaining in Legacy now,  needs to be there for its other purposes at this point"

While much of the final overview was a rehash of past talking points, there were a few new areas of interest that were shared.

Among the more notable of those, some discussion towards the status of the city's Paid Professional Fire Fighting service, a topic that apparently generated some conversation among the online contributors to the process.

Those that spoke to the topic did not seem enthusiastic to the idea, recounting how other communities are shifting to a professional paid service. Mayor Pond, speaking to comments of an impact on home insurance, made note of some elements of the discussion that he believes are important to consider. 

"Just to be clear it can, the underwriters won't give you that clear a direction at least the last time around that I played this game. They won't be that clear, that you cut your fire department a volunteer you're down to whatever. They have their checklist of things they look at. It's a risk for sure, I think that's fair"

For the most part Council appeared to accept the need for the tax hike dismissing the concept of the Staff asks from the Budget as a Wish List.  

A few noted of the last eight years of holding off on tax increases, some like Councillor Cunningham observing that they should have in hindsight been putting in place gradual take hikes.

Council members used their time to rebuff any calls for a second look at the McCarthy plans, or those of the Wastewater pilot project, or change the makeup of the City's Fire Department.  

Nor did they seem to have any appetite to follow up on Councillor Randhawa's call to reassess how the city uses the Legacy Inc mechanism. 

Not far from their minds, but a topic that did not dominate on the night was the need to address the revenue challenges, particularly the Port related and other revenue related themes that the City has raised frequently over the last few years. To that many council members offered up hopes towards progress in the future.

To bring the process to a close Council, Mayor Pond noted of the differences he has seen between the situation today as to what it was in his first term a decade ago, once again noting as to how he is impressed with the staff on hand to take on the challenges.

"I walk into this with maybe a unique perspective, you've heard me say it before. 

There is a management team in place here at City Hall that any other community would kill for. 

And the four directors that are here in this building are all Prince Rupert, I call them kids, they're not kids ... they are products of the Prince Rupert School System.  

They were born and raised here and we've been lucky enough not only that they've gained the skill sets that they have, but that they've chose to apply them here for us in the city"

Towards the revenue shortfall the Mayor observed of the challenges still ahead.

"Yes, we have a revenue shortfall. I've gotta to tell you that. Coming back you know the work we did around attracting and retooling our economy has been wildly successful on the jobs front. 

It has not as yet produced for us the revenues that we require to rebuild the community.   

And I'm not posting fingers at anybody I'm thankful for every single one of those industries ... this is not about who's good or who's bad, it's about the math and where we're at and what we need to do"

As for the question of the night, the members then voted 5-1 to adopt the Financial Plan and put in place the 12.5% tax hike, Councillor Randhawa casting the only dissenting vote on the night.

We dig much deeper into each of the Council Members contributions to the discussion from our Council Timeline which you can review here.

The Full Budget Discusison can be reviewed from the city's video archive, the three segments can be found at the following time breaks: 31 minutes, one hour seven minute mark and at the one hour 19 minutes mark of the Monday session.

For a look at the entire Budget Process from start to finish see our Budget archive page here.

More notes from Monday's Council session can be explored here.


  1. Barry years ago suggested we own CityWest we should be able to tell them they have to pay more. This resulted in a change of the board of directors.
    Order CityWest to make scheduled payments of their loan. This is one of the reasons the tax increase is so high!

  2. Citywest is absolutely not a reason that taxes are high. To the contrary: let’s thank them for the $1 million. The PRPA PILT repayment is basically a third of the tax increase. And the Port Tax Cap is the additional 10%. This is one of the reasons why taxes are so high!

    1. Deciding to pay $1 million over two years rather than one year was indeed an act of grace on Citywest's part. It decides for itself how fast it pays off the loan from the city. Thank you.

  3. In response to the question from councillor Randhawa about Legacy Corporation paying more, Mr Buchan is quoted as saying: "We did visit that question with the Board and the answer is No."

    According to the City website the Legacy Board is comprised of the CAO (i.e. Mr Buchan), the Corporate Administrator, and the CFO. Presumably the senior management team did not meet to ask the question and then put on their board member hats to answer their own question. So who is on the Legacy board these days and who said No?

    The articles of incorporation say that the board consists of at least three "managers or senior staff employees" of the City, and no more than two other persons. Maybe Legacy is contributing as much as it can afford this tax year, but who is making that call and how was that determination made?

    I agree with the preceding comment about Citywest. Asking for and being given a "holiday" on loan repayments was rather tone deaf, even though they later partly walked that back.

    1. The same question could be asked about CityWest. Robert Long is shown on the website as the "shareholder's representative" on the Board "as a result of his appointment as Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Prince Rupert". He hasn't held that position for quite a while now.

  4. Not opposed to a tax hike as long as the city is being fiscally prudent and taxpayers are receiving a noticeable benefit but I question whether or not that's the case.

    1. According to the 2021 SOFI, Legacy Inc had $13 million at the end of the year. I struggle with the concept of the city keeping a "kitty" for special occasions when it's residents are battling inflation and are seemingly getting it from every direction.

    2. Has the city done everything it can to trim it's expenditures? I question why the city has someone exclusively for communications. We already have a mayor and council who make Facebook posts. In a perfect world maybe its a good idea but when considering a 12.5% tax hike I expect that the city will consider every option possible to reduce costs first.

    3. It's a shame that we pay so much tax and the recreation centre isn't open on Easter Monday. With this level of taxation I'd rather commit to a quality of life than pay someone to make Facebook posts.

    4. What I hear often, especially from people who are new to the community, is why are our taxes so high while the town is in disrepair and we offer so few services? Our parks are fairly rough, staircases and trails are condemned in some places, roads and neighborhoods are in a sad state in many areas. It's been 20 years since the mill closed and there's been little progress in improving our community and overall way of life. If the city is now taking 12.5% more in taxes then my patience is up. I want action. Find a way to get things done. Enough is enough. A pretty white building full of people counting legacy dollars, posting on facebook and talking about everything that needs to be done isn't enough.

  5. The Legacy Fund financials and board meetings should be as transparent as council meetings. We might have another CityWest on our hands. The taxpayers can’t afford the existing CityWest without adding another.

  6. “it's about the math and where we're at and what we need to do"

    - lease out Watson as quick as you can. Look at what 13% leased is producing revenue wise.
    - winback your light industry tax base. 10% of it is gone.
    - cut costs, necessary travel only. Must have versus nice to have has to be asked for every civic expense. That includes city hall’s Amazon purchases. (2021 SOFI states 30k+ on Amazon)
    - submit a PILT dispute and move on. Refocus on growing tax revenue you control. Budget is over, put PILT in the rear view mirror.

    1. City hall would rather fight dragons then do real work. It is so much easier to blame it on the taxation of the port then make budget cuts.
      How the Belmont is still in such a sorry state is a prime example of the fine work the city does. NOT

    2. The city has submitted PILT dispute. They made a point of saying that’s an extra $100k in expenses to fight, requiring a higher tax increase this year.

      This comments section is fully of port apologists unable to admit the slightest bit of blame…. Not at all reflective of the actual community conversation being had

  7. Funny how none of these comments made it into the public domain at the city’s budget consultations,

    Too cowardly to put your names to them? Or you know they’re toxic?

    1. The city's budget consultations were online, which are anonymous.
      Civic engagement doesn't have to be in person.

      $100k in PILT expenses is a pittance compared to $250k a year for Watson Island legal fees, or $200k in water testing that tax payers paid to test our water during the 300+ days of boil water advisories.

      In fact, tax payers pay more for Citywest service to City Hall than it would cost to forward a PILT dispute to Procurement Canada.