NEWS: Draft Budget Cuts Services Again
Do citizens support the draft budget that Vancouver city council is considering for 2011? From two recent studies – one conducted by city hall consultant Market Dimensions and the other by Think City – the answer appears to be both yes and no.
Both studies found that for the third budget in a row, the majority of citizens recognize the need for civic belt tightening. However, when it comes to service priorities and tax fairness, city hall and citizens remain at odds.
According to the city’s 2011 interim budget estimates introduced to council on Nov. 30, $13.4-million in cuts are being proposed for seven city departments. In addition to these service cuts, city council will also consider revenue changes including a tax shift from commercial property owners to residential property owners, resulting in a 4.0 per cent tax hike for residents and a minor decrease in commercial taxes in 2011. City council is also looking at boosting revenues through fee increases of 2.75 per cent and a 6.9 per cent increase to utility rates.
When it comes to balancing taxes and service cuts, citizens recognize the need for city hall to exercise restraint. The Market Dimensions poll of 509 citizens found that 51 per cent of citizens favoured a mix of service cuts and limited tax increases. Think City found a similar trend in its survey of 1,758 citizens with 41.3 per cent supporting the cut/taxes mix, 40.0 per cent opposed to any service cuts and 18.8% opposed to any tax increases.
But while there may be agreement on the need to balance tax increases and service cuts, for the most part, citizens have a different view than city hall on how those cuts should be made.
In the proposed budget, there are departmental winners and losers when it comes to reductions. Police, fire, and engineering are projected to receive minimal cuts in funding, while community services, parks and recreation, libraries and corporate services are slated for much deeper cuts.
At the top of the city’s cuts list is corporate services. With a 7.6 per cent budget cut, this department is responsible for city hall activities that most citizens do not directly use or benefit from, such as the city manager’s office, human resources and other internal functions. The most visible signs of these cuts to citizens will be the reductions made to cleaning and maintenance of public facilities.
The next tier of service cuts affects community services, parks and recreation and libraries – these three departments will see a 2.6 per cent to 2.8 per cent budget cut. City libraries will have fewer staff, less funding for new resource materials and a delay in the September 2011 opening of the new Hillcrest branch. Parks board will also see staff and service reductions, along with new fees for youth and toddlers, and a 4.0 per cent fee increase for most parks board services. The cuts for community services are not yet known, however a reduction to the public consultation budget is mentioned in the council report.
The last tier of proposed service cuts are to the fire, police and engineering departments. These cuts range from 0.5 per cent for fire to 0.8 per cent for engineering. The specific cuts to fire are not disclosed in the budget draft. The police will continue to focus cuts on civilian staff and other non-frontline policing expenditures. Engineering will not fill vacancies created by attrition, impacting some programs and capital work.
Except for the police department, both Think City and Market Dimension surveys found similar levels of public support for libraries, parks and recreation, the fire department, engineering and community services. Libraries received the highest level of support in both studies.
Corporate services had the lowest level of public support of all city departments in Think City’s survey, with 44.2 per cent of respondents calling for a budget reduction. The Market Dimensions survey did not gauge support for corporate services.
Citizens also oppose council’s continued shifting of the commercial property tax burden to residential property owners. By the end of 2011, the city will have reduced corporate taxes by $51 million, shifting the entire amount onto Vancouver homeowners.
In Think City’s survey, 58.0 per cent were opposed to the shift, while 15.9 per cent said they were in support of the policy. The Market Dimensions survey did not ask citizens their opinion on the shift.
When asked by Think City, 70.6 per cent of those citizens surveyed supported delaying the tax shift for 2011 and raising taxes across the board for both commercial and residential property owners by four per cent. Such an increase if adopted, would make the majority of the proposed $13.4 million departmental budget cuts unnecessary.
The results of Think City’s Citizen Budget survey were presented to city council on Dec. 2 at the special public hearing on the 2011 operating budget. To view the Citizen Budget survey results and Think City's recommendations to Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council, click here.