Raise taxes or cut services? Fund policing or parks? Transportation or recreation? There are some pretty tough decisions to be made in the next city budget, and no matter what council decides I’m sure it will be controversial. When council decides how to balance the 2010 budget, their decision will be influenced in part by feedback received via the citizen survey that is now available to complete online.
The City of New Westminster has created a PDF overview explaining what the budget covers and what the big issues are, and within the PDF is a link to the survey where you can rank the city services that are most important to you. Some of the questions I found difficult to answer, which is (I think) the point. In an ideal world, we’d see lower taxes and more services, and no need for user-pay schemes. Realistically, given the economic and demographic pressures New Westminster is facing, we’ll likely have to either agree to take on more debt, raise taxes and/or increase user-pay fees in order to maintain (let alone improve) city services.
Here are some of the issues I found particularly thorny, and where I ended up upon some reflection:
Raise taxes or cut services
I have been pretty happy with the services we get from the city, and while property tax time was no walk in the park, I can’t support cutting services in order to save an extra $50 or $100 a year on my bill. We’d just end up spending the extra money on cheap red wine, read-it-once paperback novels and yet more toys for the kids. I don’t love the idea of paying more tax, but once again, I have to admit that the social good that could be accomplished with a small increase is likely worth it.
User fees to defray costs
On the face of it, there is some appeal to the idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this could make certain city services, like parks & rec programs, unaffordable for the residents who most need it. For someone at our income level, the choice may be to work out at Canada Games Pool’s fitness facility or to join a private gym. For many other New West residents, it may be a stretch to cover even the subsidized user fees.
Casino revenue to fund ongoing services, or only for capital improvements
Currently, casino revenue is treated like a windfall. It is unpredictable, and therefore city policy has been to use it for one-time purchases or upgrades, rather than to fund services. While it was tempting to lean on this revenue to ‘solve’ the problem of funding, in the end I decided that the city’s current policy is wise. I’m not comfortable with the risk of depending on gambling money to cover delivery of core services.
Debt to fund necessary infrastructure upgrades
We live in an older city, and many of our parks, playgrounds, roads, etc. are due to be upgraded or replaced. I actually answered no to this, because the debt servicing costs add so much to the price of these improvements, but I think if I could go back and modify my response I would. I still wouldn’t be enthusiastic about the idea, but I think there are some improvements that would merit borrowing money to fund. I would support it for urgently needed upgrades, and for improvements that could support economic development in the city that would potentially fund more projects in future years.
I’m a pedestrian and transit user by first choice, and generally opposed to anything that encourages people to drive more often than necessary, so my initial reaction was that this was a good idea to raise funds. But I’m also a small business booster, and sad as it is, paying $1 for parking is enough to turn some customers off shopping at a Columbia St. boutique when they can go park at Metrotown and shop the big-box stores for free. I still think this is worth looking at, but I think the city has to be careful about how much to charge and carefully consider how it might impact our many small businesses. There was also a question about adding parking fees at civic facilities. I came out opposed to this, however in reality I think it depends which buildings and how much is charged. My concern is for the lowest income residents, and the potential detriment to the community if people start avoiding civic facilities such as libraries, rec centres and parks out of pique at the new fees.
These are just some of the dilemmas posed in the survey and accompanying PDF on city spending. The survey takes only 15 minutes or so to fill out, but it sure does get you thinking about some of the big issues facing our town.