FOULDS: Keep asking questions about those figures

Do we really need to add three Mounties to the Kamloops force at a total cost — wages, benefits, equipment, etc. — of $600,000 per year?

Are extended transit hours and more staff plowing snow money well spent?

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These are questions local taxpayers should be asking city councillors because those above issues are some of the ones over which your elected representatives have control when trying to finalize a budget and keep the property-tax increase as low as possible.

Those items represent about 1.2 per cent of the provisional 3.4 per cent property-tax increase being considered, pending further decisions by council.

Another 1.2 per cent represents costs out of the city’s control, according to Mayor Ken Christian and finance director Kathy Humphrey. These are costs handed down by senior levels of government, including the carbon tax, the employers’ health tax, BC Hydro rate increases and ICBC fee hikes.

The final one per cent is composed of wage increases for Kamloops CUPE staff, Kamloops firefighters and Kamloops Mounties.

While out of the city’s control now, costs for city staff and firefighters were indeed within the city’s control when those contracts were signed and will again be within the city’s control when the next contracts are negotiated.

(The RCMP contract is another beast altogether, out of the city’s control, which is partly why Surrey council has decided to switch to a municipal force, despite the fact doing so will certainly be more expensive.)

As the city looks to secure a new contract with its CUPE workers (the current contract expires on March 31, 2019) and with its unionized firefighters (the current contract with the International Association of Fire Fighters expires on Dec. 31, 2019), taxpayers should ask questions.

Should Kamloops firefighters be paid the same as their Lower Mainland counterparts (the current agreement stipulates the pay increase be equal to the average of the increases agreed to by the majority of the 15 Lower Mainland municipality agreements)? And how much of an increase should city CUPE workers receive in the next contract?

Taxpayers should be asking questions because they are the ones paying those bills.

Policing is the single-largest expense in the city’s $166-million budget this year— eating up $30 million — so that large piece of the fiscal pie naturally receives much attention. Peace and security are always top of mind and it seems Kamloopsians do not mind spending their tax dollars on the men and women in uniform.

Kamloops Fire Rescue costs are the second-most expensive, accounting for $19 million of this year’s budget. Again, there seems to be an acceptance of that budget item.

Whether those costs should be under the microscope or be expected to always lead the way is up to council — and, to some extent, you.

Wednesday’s public budget meeting on McArthur Island — the first such gathering as the budget is cobbled together — attracted a surprisingly large crowd (relative to previous meetings).

I counted about 60 residents mingling among all nine council members and plenty of city staffers, all of whom were given a budget rundown by Humphrey and many of whom later corralled various councillors and staff members to talk about swimming pools, outdoor ice rinks, snow-removal policies and city salaries.

Whether the public input has any effect on tax levels remains to be seen.

Your next chance to weigh in and ask questions is on Feb. 6.
Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds

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