In North Cowichan: a question of spending
Is spending out of control in North Cowichan?
Absolutely, according to three people running for mayor.
Absolutely not counter the two most recent men to wear the municipality’s chains of office.
Mayoral candidate Scott Baker did not return phone calls for this article but has sharply criticized North Cowichan’s fiscal leadership in his campaign ads and all-candidates’ forums.
And he’s not alone in his claims.
“Spending is absolutely out of control,” said fellow candidate Joyce Behnsen. “Staff spending is excessive, which is why they need the new municipal hall.
“North Cowichan’s turned into a development company and has no time to process projects proposed.”
Another hopeful Clayton Balabanov agreed.
“Spending’s gone crazy. The new pool and cost of maintenance is escalating out of control, and that’s a big buck we have to get to the bottom of.”
They’ve got support from a B.C. tax watchdog.
Jason Keenan of the Independent Contractors & Business Association of B.C. cited North Cowichan’s spending growth figures from the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Operating expenditures between 2000 and 2008 hopped by some 58 per cent compared to population and inflation of around 26 per cent.
“This means between 2000 and 2008, spending has gone up at 2.25 times the rate of inflation and growth,” he said.
“If North Cowichan had held spending to inflation and growth, it would have saved $5.3 million in 2008 alone — that would have saved a family of four $728 on their taxes.”
But Mayor Tom Walker and former mayor Jon Lefebure had other numbers.
“Saying our spending’s out of control is nonsense,” said Walker. “They’re (spending-crisis believers) comparing apples to oranges.
“We’re the fifth-lowest in B.C. for general residential municipal taxes in 2011 in 50 towns, population 6,000 to 50,000.”
Walker explained North Cow’s average home-tax hike.
“What put it up was the ($19-million Cowichan Aquannis) pool in 2009. I inherited that. We also shifted the Crofton pulp mill (tax load) so we’re not so reliant on it.
“If the mill (shuts), we can survive. We softened the blow to residential owners as much was we could,” Walker said.
Right, indicated Lefebure, who hopes to reclaim the chair he occupied for the two terms prior to Walker.
“From the outside, things may look scary but I don’t think they are.”
Take North Cow’s 2009 debt.
“Provincial figures show it was $22.4 million debt, versus $39.6 revenues.
“That’s not out of control. There are safeguards. The municipality is regulated by the Community Charter.
“We also have a liability servicing limit to which you’re allowed to borrow money.
“We were at 28 per cent of our limit in 2010,” he said, dashing debt demons.
But taxpayers may be maxed, he explained and advised looking for other revenue streams.
His economic wish list included a website showing investors North Cowichan’s zoned commercial land, infrastructure upgrades, promoting Cowichan as paradise, and pushing tourism, and arts and culture sectors.
Walker wanted to boost development by chasing federal and provincial dough “to make North Cowichan investor and builder friendly.”
“With industries, the greener, the better, and ones that don’t smell,” he said.
“Amenities like Chemainus Theatre draw people.”
Both men cited Chemainus’ revitalization plan as a business sparkplug.
But Behnsen and Balabanov wanted faster decisions about developments to grow the tax base.
“Approval times are literally years. Time is money. That discourages investors to the point they give up,” Behnsen said.
“We have a reputation among builders and developers as ‘No Cowichan’,” said Balabanov.
“Let’s clear the fog and cut to the chase.”
Behnsen called for more sewer lines, and growing the wood value-added, agri-food, and green-energy sectors.
Balabanov questioned the number of North Cowichan managers, and promised to review spending on expanding the municipal hall, buying the curling rink, and building a new cop shop.
His economic forecast included bylaws allowing electric cars, and making them here; nixing polluting industries; embracing small manufacturers; and banning municipal raw-log exports to pump the value-added sector.
By the numbers
2001, 26,148; 2010, 29,837
Budget (not including amortization):
2002, $24.7 million; 2010, $30.5 million
Average home gross taxes, plus water, sewer, garbage collection etc.:
2001, $1,741; 2011, $2,248 (A 29.12 percent tax increase, or an average of 2.9 percent per year)
2002, 171; 2010, 263
Salaries, wages, benefits:
2002: $7.07 million; 2010, $12.3 million.
Ranked against the 50 B.C. municipalities with
2001 Taxes per capita: North Cowichan, $716; Lowest: Coldstream, $453; Highest, Whistler, $3,229. North Cowichan ranking, 11th lowest
2011 General municipal home taxes, North Cowichan, $969. Lowest: Quesnel, $639. Highest: West Vancouver, $3,480. North Cowichan ranking: fifth lowest of 50.
—District of North Cowichan