“When you’re dealing with limited, finite resources, one of the harsh truths is that it’s always about priorities and consequences. You can’t do it all and for every decision we make on an investment in the city, there is a corresponding decision not to go ahead with a project. When I’m out and about chatting with folks, I frequently hear about ‘more’ and rarely options for ‘less’ (unless its taxes).”
— Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst
The above observation was part of the mayor’s lengthy column last Saturday that attempted to set the tone for the upcoming 2013 city budget deliberations.
While Decter Hirst touched on several issues that are worthy of debate around the council table and in coffee shops across the city — including city salaries and ongoing union contract negotiations, the city’s dire infrastructure situation, and need for council to tackle commercial and residential growing pains — she made no promises to try to hold the line on new taxes.
And considering the debacle that was the 2012 budgeting process, taxation is high on the minds of Brandonites these days.
In its proposed 2012 budget last December, the city had initially proposed a 5.8 per cent increase in the mill rate for property taxes, in a year when residents saw rather large hikes from the province-wide property assessment. With 2012 being a reassessment year, everyone’s properties were reassessed, which resulted in people’s taxes going up higher than others.
In fact some assessments declined and their taxes decreased, though most homeowners were not so lucky.
Following the inevitable public backlash to the proposed budget, the mayor and council held a series of public consultations and emergency budget meetings that pared down the proposed operating budget of $76 million to $73.1 million — though it remained a $5.3-million jump over the 2011 operation budget. The reduced 2012 operating budget ultimately lowered the existing mill rate by 4.9 per cent.
While that meant a 4.9 per cent property tax increase instead of 15.6 per cent, Brandon city staff, and our city’s mayor and council were rightfully criticized for completely mishandling the budgeting process, and for underestimating public anger over the issue.
We know for a fact that taxes are on the minds of our councillors too as the next budgeting cycle begins. Last May, when city tax bills were delivered to Brandon residences, several councillors said they took quite a bit of heat from their constituents, who vented their frustration in person, in emails and by phone.
In general terms, we happen to agree with the mayor on a few points. We do believe that the city needs to invest in growth and development. Planning for future growth in the Black Farm property is a worthy investment as this city’s population grows.
We believe city residents need to pay attention to the budgeting process so they can add informed voices to the city’s deliberations.
And considering the deteriorating state of our city roads, we do believe it’s time our elected officials begin to properly address the situation in the next budget. It won’t matter how many successful events or profitable business ventures this city and council plan to bring to Brandon — bad city roads reflect poorly on this community.
However, that doesn’t mean city residents can stand another tax increase to pay for it.
From the city’s 2012 financial plan currently posted on its website, we note that the city’s operating budget is slated to once again increase by nearly $1.38 million for 2013.
Yet even if every single red cent of such a budget increase went to infrastructure, we believe this council would be hard pressed to justify it. Whatever political capital that this mayor and council had upon their election in 2010 has been spent — even for those who voted against the final 2012 budget.
This rather ambitious council still has much more it wants to accomplish, and there are difficult decisions ahead. We welcome that debate and hope the public will be similarly engaged. Just remember, the city’s finite resources are largely paid for by city residents.
We are not opposed to paying taxes, but Brandon still has to live within its means. And if that means delayed ambition, so be it.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 26, 2012