By ROY WOOD
Osoyoos council will spend the next several weeks striking a balance between cutting costs and raising taxes as it grapples with the reality of a more than half-million-dollar annual increase in policing costs.
This all results from the news received in February when the census revealed the population had topped 5,000, triggering the jump from a 30% share of policing costs to 70 per cent. In cash terms, the bill goes from just under $400,000 to just over $900,000 a year.
There are also potentially added costs around issues like paying for the building space the RCMP detachment uses and the potential for costly major crimes investigations.
Mayor Sue McKortoff said in an interview that she and some senior staff members met recently with three officials from the ministry of justice to discuss the town’s concerns.
She could not reveal contents of the meeting because, “It is not public yet because we are in contract negotiations.” The meeting followed a protracted wait for an information package from the province detailing the change in police funding.
Two of the provincial agents will brief the full council next week, after which staff and councillors will return to the budget deliberations they believed just about a month ago were all but wrapped.
The town had made some minor provision for the policing cost increase by socking away $223,200 in an earmarked reserve fund. However, few believed the population would pass 5,000 in this census cycle and council and staff were taken by surprise.
In the reserve balances section of the budget, a line for over $525,000 marked general is shown. And throughout the document are several million dollars in various funds slated for projects in sewer, water, landfill and other areas.
Asked what, if any monies might be dragged out of non-police reserve funds to soften the tax hit, McKortoff said, “We don’t know. (But) we can’t be using up all of our reserves.
“We haven’t finished the budget, we are certainly looking at every option. But the bottom line is people are going to have to pay more … there isn’t a way to avoid that,” she said.
The mayor said that because of the tight time lines, it is unlikely there will be any public consultation about how to deal with rising police costs.
“I have a feeling it will be up to council and the administration to deal with this kind of thing. We have already had open council meetings where we asked people to come and suggest ways that we can put things in the budget,” she said.
Councillor Mike Campol, who recently ripped the province for delays in getting vital information to the town, said virtually everything is on the table.
“Is the general reserve touchable? Sure it is. That one’s very touchable and that’s why it’s called general. … Everything is touchable at this point. We can move money out of any reserve fund we want,” he said.
“If we have to put off some projects, we need to prioritize which ones are worth putting off,” he said.
“But there’s going to be a tax increase, there’s no question about it. … Our goal is to find a balance. If we take projects that aren’t necessities and we … find some money in subsequent years to start offsetting some of this. The rest is going to be a tax increase.”
Campol also suggested in an interview that the best use of the current police cost reserve fund might not be to mitigate a tax hike.
He said the future costs of fighting major crimes are uncertain: “We might be more responsible by not using the reserve fund to offset the new costs, but use it … where there might be an investigation that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Campol said the whole process is regretful because people will be unhappy with paying higher taxes and it will take several years for the new normal to set in so the town will be able to consider small tax increases to fund projects. “So it seems like all those neat ideas that we’re looking forward to in the coming years won’t be happening for quite some time,” he said.
Up Highway 97, Oliver is counting its blessings that population figures stayed just under 5,000.
But Mayor Ron Hovanes recently, “It’s pretty sure that by the next census … that we’re probably going to go over 5,000.
“There’s a strong argument to be made … to start raising taxes now so that we know, five years from now, if we have to raise taxes … we’re already half way there.”
Oliver council has agreed that creating a police reserve fund starting next year will be part of budget talks in the fall.