The federal government's Safe Restart Agreement with the provinces and last month's announcement of BC's COVID-19 Safe Restart Grant program has sent a one-time $2.98 million in operational funds to Sooke. In short: Christmas has come early in this most topsy-turvy of years.
A District Safe Restart reserve fund has been promptly created and the monies banked for mindful application next year and in future. While there are tight spending guidelines from Victoria, the good instant news we're learning in Monday night's council agenda (pp. 409-462) is that $553k of the cash can be used in 2021 -- reducing next year's projected tax hike to 3.31% from the proposed 6.67% we saw in the first draft of the Five-Year Financial Plan released on Nov. 9. (Which followed the District's annual service review and the budget survey results two weeks earlier.)
The new figure, which is entirely subject to further tinkering in the weeks ahead as we move forward guided by Director of Finance Raechel Gray, is aligned with this council's desire to keep tax hikes reasonable even with the relative freezes of earlier years and the rapid community growth that has put increased demands on District resources. (This year we wrestled the proposed increase down to 4.01% before eliminating it entirely once the pandemic hit. We were rightly worried about how the Declaration of Emergency would impact taxpayers; as it happily turns out, 93.56% of the 6,000 or so District residential tax portfolios had been stamped "paid" for 2020 as of early October, a percentage point ahead of last year.)
Sooke's Safe Restart reserve will remain flush for future years, yet next year it can be tapped for the following:
* Local community economic development (via the salary and an operating budget for the District's first Community Economic Development Officer to work alongside the new Community Economic Development Committee).
* Service agreement funding for the Sooke Region Chamber of Commerce to get it back on par ($28k) with public support for other essential community movers/shakers (i.e., the Visitor Information Centre, the Sooke Community Association, Sooke Region Communities Health Network and Sooke Region Tourism Association) (A review of all these agreements is set for next year.)
* Part-time, as-needed seasonal staffing support for the Parks & Greenspaces department to assist the current team with its multifaceted duties around town.
* Updates to computer hardware and software + a reboot of the District's constantly evolving website (at the hands of the District's IT and Communications departments).
* And the purchase of a bylaw vehicle so our two officers don't have to wrestle over the keys to the one truck now available to them (also potentially eligible under the Restart funding is an E-bike, which I proposed last year after seeing how the CRD was giving them to its water-board employees and that other local governments were using them successfully during ziparound park and urban patrols.)
The proposed 3.31% tax uptick (equivalent to a $50 increase for the average assessed residential portfolio in Sooke) will also allow the Sooke RCMP to integrate the Crime Stoppers program into its own budget; enables Sooke Fire Rescue to undertake an operational masterplan and bolster its team of relief workers (therefore cutting down on overtime); and pays for a pair of veteran contractors (with massive amounts of direct Sooke experience) to work with and provide institutional memory to the District's planning and operations departments.
Nestled within the Five-Year Plan is the 2021 Capital Plan, much of which is funded through the gas tax, gaming revenues, Development Cost Charges and District reserves. Whereas the last two years have seen monies spent on key planning documents, next year is notable for the number of new design blueprints to be created in ensuring we're shovel-ready for incoming infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, trails) funding opportunities.
The design priorities all follow recommended actions and guidelines in the new Transportation and Parks & Trails Masterplans:
* Phase one of the Throup Connector (Charters to Phillips)
* The Wadams/Otter Point/Grant Rd. roundabout and roadway linkages
* Sooke Road improvements in the Charters/Drennan area (MOTI is planning a stoplight at Charters to facilitate traffic from the new BC Housing projects, however an intriguing proposal was floated by a resident who wrote council last week and involves a roundabout at Drennan and Sooke Road.)
* Murray Road drainage improvements (on the steep slope leading to the boardwalk)
* Road/sidewalk designs for the length of Charters and the Phillips/Sooke Rd. junction.
Also on the proposed 2021 expense sheet:
* Hiring of a Land Development Technician to better manage sub-division applications & long-term growth
* Ground-breaking on Sunriver's Multi-Sport Court Box
* Repairs to the Rotary Pier and boardwalk
* A masterplan for parks in the Town Centre
* Municipal hall repairs
* Funding for a dog park
* Creation of a Solid Waste Strategy Business Plan (exploring municipal pick-up service and a yard-waste depot)
* Installation of streetlights and transit stops
Plus these grant-dependent (fingers crossed) projects ...
- improvements to the lower-level Sooke Potholes parking lot
- Final phases of the DeMamiel bridge crossing as part of the new Stickleback Urban Trail
- Rebuild of the Bluffs Staircase at the end of Austin's Place in Whiffin Spit (now closed for safety reasons; this project will include the creation of public parking areas and signage pointing the way to Sooke's best-kept-secret pocket park.)
Busy year ahead, then, for a well-marshalled and effective District team, one that is increasingly meeting council's Strat Plan objectives of "building a reputable organization" and "managing long-term growth while enhancing community identity, vitality and safety." Thank you to them, you dear taxpayer (and I'm referring to me too) and all Sooke residents along for this ever-evolving, never-dull ride into the unwritten (but well planned) future. (This said, I still worry about the growing volumes of traffic on Hwy #14 and the fact that 1500-plus new housing units are on the books without factoring in any additional rezoning applications or pprovals, but I'll save that for another day's update.)
Related from this blog ...
* The CRD Share of Your #Sooke Tax Bill (Nov. 2019)
* $$$ (July 2019)
Recent financial items from my Facebook page ...
Oct. 21, 2020: "Always something to learn and/or recall about how our local government works via the District's Property Tax Calculator. Today's nugget "The District has $154,540,449 in assets to maintain (historical cost as at Dec. 31, 2019). Of this, $55,928,835 is in roads and sidewalks." Posted as a prelude to this afternoon's round one of budget planning for the 2021-25 five-year plan. The agenda includes the results of last month's public survey (an anonymous, romping/stomping blend of the good, critical, complimentary, useful, occasionally ugly and POed) ... along with 2021 department budget requests (uncosted at this point) and a depth-dive review of how staff spend their productive time. Worth a read if, like me, you need a break from the high anxiety of duelling elections and the pandemic."
May 5, 2020: "Good news, in case you've not heard, from last week's virtual council meeting: Sooke's proposed 2020 property tax hike is being cut to zero to provide homeowners and businesses with a dash of COVID-era relief.
Early last month council asked staff to revisit the approved budget, and a slate of cuts and deferrals were identified across every department. Result: A $320k reduction in the District's $23.8 million operating budget. That's enough to erase the 4.01% increase finalized after many hours of council meetings, an open house, a public survey and several editorial cartoons that, in time-honoured tradition, suggested taxpayers were being fleeced by a spendthrift bureaucracy. (Absolutely not so in our case, I can testify.)
Full report begins on pg. 15 of the April 27 agenda here ~ https://sooke.ca/municipal-hall/agenda-minutes.
The savings aren't huge, working out to approx. $80 on the $500k average assessed Sooke home. But it does represent a little extra cash for those in need. And, if you're doing fine through all this, then please consider reinvesting the modest windfall in the Sooke Food Bank, a local food delivery service and/or a #BetterBuySooke gift card.
Cutting revenue now means the District will likely need to look at topping up the 2.89% tax increase written into the Five-Year Financial Plan for 2021. The next round of number crunching begins this summer with a service-level review led by CAO Norm McInnis. The timing, a best-practice early start on the annual budget planning cycle, improves on an already dramatically sped-up (by Sooke standards) process initiated by Financial Director Raechel Gray last fall.
For context, incidentally, we're hardly alone in throwing taxpayers a bone in this year unlike any other in most of our lifetimes. A quick G-search tells me that many of Canada's 3,600-plus local governments are doing likewise. Certainly it's happening here on the South Island as per this Grumpy Taxpayer summary from last week that can now be updated to include our action."
April 4, 2020: "Council officially met via Zoom last Tuesday to adopt the Five-Year Budget, which we did unanimously. It is entirely subject to amendment, however, and this will likely happen in the weeks ahead as per these quotes from Mayor Tait in today's Vancouver Sun.
<clip> "'A lot of our members are concerned and worried,' said Sooke Mayor Maya Tait, president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities. (which represents more than 95 percent of the province's 163 municipalities and regional districts).
The UBCM hasn’t formally requested financial aid from the province, but municipalities are meeting regularly with the province to work on a solution to ease their financial pressures, she said. For instance, they’re asking the province to consider allowing deferral of property taxes by residents who may need it when taxes come due in July.
Sooke is working at amending its tax rate proposal, due to the province on May 15, because it includes a four per cent hike, calculated before the pandemic hit. 'It’s only $60 or so per household but it feels out of touch, given the circumstances,' Tait said. A lot of municipalities are rethinking tax hikes right now. But she said municipalities still have to pay for essential services, such as road maintenance and waste water. 'It’s difficult to plan for the future, you have to keep the core services operational.'"