Victoria proposal would add 21.5 full-time staff for about $2.3 million

Victoria city council is preparing to approve a budget this spring that adds 21.5 full-time employees at a cost of about $2.3 million, according to figures released by the city.

Mayor Lisa Helps said council has achieved its goal of limiting the property-tax increase to the rate of inflation plus one percentage point, while still delivering new programs and services.

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“We’re a growing city and we’re a city that values quality of life, and city staff have a responsibility to deliver that quality of life and well being and I think that that’s what this budget does,” she said.

It’s unlikely, however, that the budget will receive unanimous support, since some councillors have already expressed reservations.

“I think, overall, the budget can be characterized as one where we’re biting off a lot more than we should be asking our taxpayers to chew on,” Coun. Geoff Young told his colleagues last month. “And some of the more fundamental things that we should be doing to make our city livable, we’re neglecting.”

The total operating annual budget is currently pegged at about $265 million, although that figure might change, as some numbers are still being finalized. The capital budget will be about $43.4 million.

Staff say the overall property tax increase is expected to come in at $4.68 million or 3.35 per cent.

When combined with utility fees, the total increase will be 3.32 per cent for the average homeowner and 3.26 per cent for the typical business, the city says.

Of the new employees, about half will be deployed to manage housing issues, new growth and a spike in large, complex development proposals.

Helps said six of the new jobs are for people who are already working for the city on contract.

“We hired people in the planning department thinking the building boom we’re seeing would slow down at some point,” she said. “But for the last four years it hasn’t, and all indications we have is that it’s going to continue at least for a couple of more years. So those positions have just been made permanent.”

Two of the other jobs are for bylaw officers to enforce the city’s short-term rental bylaw, and they will be paid with money from short-term rental fees.

The rest of the positions will be funded through new assessed revenue and are “absolutely defensible,” Helps said. The number of full-time city employees rises to 882 with the additions.

“The city’s growing and we need to make sure that we’re positioned to respond,” she said.

In addition to the new hires, the city is more than tripling its annual investment in the Housing Reserve Fund, which provides grants for the retention and development of affordable homes. The city will contribute $900,000 to the fund this year, up from $250,000.

Helps noted that that the grants are matched by other levels of government.

“So that money goes a long way.”

The city is also making significant investments to fight climate change.

Helps said 50 per cent of the city’s emissions come from buildings, and a significant portion of those come from home heating systems. So the budget includes $400,000 in “top-up incentives” to a provincial program that helps homeowners convert from oil to heat pumps.

“There’s a lot of oil tanks out there in the city and we’ve created an incentive program and staff support person to get their oil tanks out of the ground,” she said.

Young has already indicated that he’s opposed to the budget.

“We’re contemplating a very significant staff addition, in many cases to add new programs that may duplicate programs that other governments either are offering or should be offering or to top up programs like the oil tank program,” he told council.

Coun. Ben Isitt is also expected to vote against the final budget. He acknowledges that it contains many worthwhile programs and services, including housing, climate change and environmental protection initiatives. But he has said that he’s unwilling to support continual police-budget increases beyond the rate of inflation.

"It’s unsustainable and it might put me in the unfortunate position of not being able to support the overall city budget,” he said last month.

Council has signalled that it will likely approve the police department’s request to increase its budget by 4.43 per cent to $58.2 million this year, which includes the addition of a pilot project to hire four unarmed special constables.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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