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Langford considers big tax hike: not enough firefighters, pool could close without doubled subsidy

Mayor Scott Goodmanson says the big-ticket expenses are coming after years of "artificially low taxes" set by the previous council.
The YM-YWCA pool and fitness facility at Westhills. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Langford residents could be in for a hefty tax hike to save its only swimming pool and to cover the costs of increasing fire and police services in the fast-growing municipality.

Council grappled with the potential costs at a committee of the whole meeting this week, where city staff warned surging population growth, unexpected legal and cost pressures and record inflation have created ­significant budget pressures.

Mayor Scott Goodmanson said the big-ticket expenses are coming after years of “artificially low taxes” set by the previous council, where projected tax increases of 6% were slashed by half in some cases from 2020 to last year.

“Taxes were kept low because of COVID and potential job losses, but we all knew we would have to pay for that eventually,” said Goodmanson. “I’m not saying that was a bad decision, but now we’re here.”

He said the tax breaks were offset with money from the municipal reserves. Now council is facing extra costs because of its rapid population growth — the population soared past 50,000 this year and is projected to hit 103,000 by 2045.

Taxes haven’t been set for the city’s 2023 budget, which is expected later this month or in early April, and there is no indication of how high they might go.

During a six-hour committee of the whole meeting on Monday, council recommended hiring 27 new firefighters over the next three years, which will cost the municipality $1 million each year.

Only one of Langford’s three fire halls has paid firefighters. The rest are volunteers, despite Langford’s surging population.

Goodmanson said Langford has to sometimes rely on mutual-aid agreements with Colwood and View Royal to have enough firefighters to attack a house fire. “With towers coming in numbers to the core, we will be required to have 36 firefighters [on the scene] of a potential fire and we already have several buildings in the 10-storey range.”

Another expense is the hiring of five new RCMP officers this year, bringing Langford’s total to 66, and the mandated officer-to-population ratio of 1:750.

Goodmanson said the number of RCMP officers has doubled in the past five years alone. “People forget that every time a tower goes up with 750 people, that’s $200,000 we have to allocate [for a new officer].”

Also part of this year’s budget: nearly $1 million toward a new RCMP detachment. Langford is assuming the lion’s share of the cost of the proposed $81-million facility — about $56 million — which will serve Colwood, Langford, Metchosin and the Highlands.

The city also needs to hire six more staff to keep up with the demands of its increasing population. The new hires in bylaw enforcement, accounting, office, arts and parks would amount to $311,000 in 2023 and $600,000 for the full year of 2024. A 1% tax increase is the equivalent of $380,000.

The most immediate concern for council, however, is bailing out the YM-YWCA pool and fitness facility at Westhills, which has lost $10 million since opening in 2016. The YM-YWCA of Vancouver Island told council it would have to close by the end of the month if the city didn’t double its annual subsidy of $950,000.

Council said it will consider the short-term measure of increasing its contribution to $1.9 million at an upcoming council meeting that will involve public comment.

Staff said council should consider buying the 60,000-square-foot facility from Westhills Development Corporation, which built and owns the recreation facility, and rents it to the YM-YWCA.

Since 2020, Westhills has deferred rent for the organization, which has been struggling to attract members during the pandemic, to the tune of $1.6 million.

The city signed a 25-year lease agreement with Westhills and the YM-YWCA in 2016.

City staff told council that if it doubles its annual contribution to the recreation centre, the city should conduct a governance and operational review to ensure residents are getting the best possible services for the money spent.

Staff noted that no bi-annual operating reports on the YMCA were ever presented to staff or council, despite an agreement to do so starting in 2016, and urged council to require detailed reporting of the operation going back five years.

If council decides to double the subsidy, it would represent a tax hike of 2.5%, according to staff.

Several people using the YM-YWCA on Wednesday said the city should keep it operating.

“It’s valued, an asset to the city,” said Bernadette Armstrong, who has used the pool four or five times a week since it opened as she recovers from a shoulder injury.

Armstrong said the city should move toward owning the facility. “We are going to have to pay for it anyway,” she said. “We might as well pay for a year, take a careful look at the finances and hope they can restructure, keep it going and hopefully buy it from Westhills.

“You know it’s a really great facility. It’s clean and has great staff … and it’s five minutes from my place.”

Derek Gent, chief executive of the YM-YWCA of Vancouver Island, told council the YMCA is looking to boost its memberships now that the pandemic has eased.

Pre-COVID membership was about 13,500, but it has slipped to about half of that. Hiring and retaining staff — chiefly lifeguards — has been a challenge.

The goal is to increase memberships to about 10,000 and expand the services the facility can offer, including potential partnerships with the Greater Victoria Public Library, Victoria Conservancy of Music and Royal Roads University, which started building its Langford campus in partnership with Camosun and the University of Victoria in downtown Langford last month.

Gent said the YM-YWCA recently extended its hours of operation to add programming and capacity, including camp registrations and $10-per-day childcare.

Goodmanson said the city can’t afford to lose the YM-YWCA facility and he supports doubling the subsidy. But he said it’s not a long-term solution.

“We’re already paying $2 million because we’re bound by the tripartite agreement,” said Goodmanson. “We’re going to be paying $2 million a year for the next 18 years. At the end of it, we’ll be left with nothing. Or we could own it and do whatever we want.”

The tripartite agreement between the city, YMCA and Westhills stipulates that Langford agrees to assume the lease if the YMCA ceased to operate or defaulted the lease. The deal brought Langford its first pool — a $30-million facility with a private builder — and provided certainty to Westhills that lease payments would continue to be paid for the full term.

Goodmanson said Westhills is open to the idea of selling. “They’ve said they’re in the development business, not the recreation business.”

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