Budget season has arrived in Tofino and a steady stream of residents flowed into the town’s community hall to get brought up to speed on how their local government plans to spend their tax dollars.
“I think it’s great that the staff and councillors are here to answer questions and join in discussion,” Tofino resident Eileen Floody told the Westerly News at the district’s Feb. 18 budget open house event.
“That shows that they care a great deal. I think all of our councillors are in their positions because they love this community and they want to help the people that live here and I think the staff on the whole do a really good job of bringing council’s and the public’s wishes to fruition. I don’t agree with everything, but I think they do their very best.”
Last year, Tofino’s municipal council approved a five-year financial plan that projected a 48 per cent tax increase in increments of: 7.4 per cent in 2019, 9.28 per cent in 2020, 23.05 per cent in 2021, 4.03 per cent in 2022 and 3.9 per cent in 2023.
Tofino’s Director of Financial Services Nyla Attiana told the Westerly the numbers in this year’s financial plan are still preliminary, though they currently call for about $5.05 million being collected from taxpayers in 2020, up from about $4.57 million in 2019, equaling an increase of $484,174.
She said this year’s proposed financial plan carries expected budget increases of $497,673 in 2021, $916,361 in 2022, $249,326 in 2023 and $36,705 in 2024.
The significant jump in 2022 is related to the district’s $55 million wastewater treatment project. The district received roughly $40 million in grants for the project, but residents remain on the hook for the remaining $14 million.
The spike in 2021 includes the debt servicing plan in place for a proposed $10 million indoor recreation facility near the community hall.
“The annual debt servicing payments on the Indoor Rec Facility are estimated at $183,086. These are added to the budget in 2021,” Attiana explained via email. “These debt servicing payments are included in the $497,673 budget increase in 2021…If we were to remove that amount the budget increase in 2021 will be reduced to $314,587 impacting subsequent years of the financial plan.”
The facility is largely contingent on an approximately $7 million grant from the federal government, and the project remains in the budget while the district waits to hear whether that grant application was successful.
The district’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers told the Westerly at the open house that he had hoped to know the application’s fate by the end of January, but no news has come in so far. He added that if the application is successful, Tofino would then schedule a referendum.
“If we don’t get the grant the project is definitely on pause. If we were to get the grant, then we still have to go to the community to decide if this is something we can do at this moment, in consideration of all the other projects that we have on the go like the wastewater treatment plant,” he said.
He added “a lot of work” has gone into the proposed recreation facility project over the past five years with cost estimates and detailed design work being completed last year after council approved spending roughly $116,000 on design and cost estimates in preparation for the grant application.
“There was a lot of work done by staff and the Rec. Commission,” Rodgers said adding that, if the grant is unsuccessful, the district will seek out other funding sources. “Basically, the plan becomes a shelf-ready project and we look for other options to figure out how we’re going to finance this.”
Tofino resident John Enns attended the open house and expressed concern over the amount of money residential taxpayers are being asked to pay to cover large projects like the wastewater treatment plant.
“I’m concerned about the way money is spent and gathered by our council and staff in Tofino,” Enns told the Westerly. “The residents are basically paying for most of it and actually using less of it and the big rich resorts are getting, not quite a free ride, but a pretty good ride on it. I think we should have a system where people who use it more, pay more.”
He added that he hopes the town’s staff and council review the feedback provided at the open house and pay attention to what residents are saying.
“I just hope that the take home from it is they’ll actually be reading and listening and considering the notes and input that they get,” he said. “In fairness to staff and council, they can’t just act on all of them or they would be running all over and in opposite directions. They are hopefully going to be taking them seriously and that will be part of their decision on how they act.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers is going through her second municipal budget process and assured all feedback would be considered, though she added she was hoping to see a larger audience attend the open house. “I would have liked to see more people show up and a few more diverse groups,” she said. “I think it’s really important to have as much input as possible from as many different people as possible. I don’t think there’s one right answer to any decision we make and the more people that are here to inform us, the better decisions we can make.”
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Coun. Andrea McQuade said meeting face to face is a valuable opportunity for both residents and councillors, adding that one on one conversations can help clarify rumours circulating through social media.
“I’m really grateful for everybody who comes out…I think part and parcel of getting feedback is also learning what we can do better as a district in our ways of communicating with the town,” she said.
“Each of the councillors here really represent a diversity of opinions, but we are all aiming towards the high-minded goal of representing everybody in this town equally and fairly…To be able to come here and to meet face to face with the people who are making those decisions and to see that they’re real people making decisions not only for you, but for themselves and for a livelihood of this town, I think, is really important.”
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