The coronavirus pandemic has wiped out Tofino’s tourism economy so far this year and, in response, the town’s municipal council has revised its five year financial plan, dramatically cutting taxation, and consequentially spending, beginning with a 19 per cent reduction this year over last.
As part of an anticipated 48 per cent tax increase spread out over five years that council approved in 2019, Tofino had expected to collect $5.05 million in taxation in 2020, but that was before COVID-19 hit and, in the pandemic’s wake, the district now plans to collect $3.67 million, 19 per cent less than the $4.57 million it collected in 2019.
Transforming that expected tax increase into a decrease was made possible thanks to “hours and hours and hours of work” by the district’s staff, said Tofino mayor Josie Osborne during council’s May 12 meeting where the new five-year financial plan was unanimously approved.
The district’s manager of financial planning Nyla Attiana said taxation in all five years of the new plan has been reduced by putting the budget’s early draft into a guillotine and removing all projects that were deemed non-essential.
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Those projects include kitchen and roof upgrades at the Tofino Community Hall, improvements to Gibson Street and a new duty officer vehicle earmarked for the Tofino Volunteer Fire Department.
The town’s council, as well as its staff, also saw a big drop in its travel and training coffers and, Attiana said, the district reduced its staffing levels and suspended all new hiring.
She added that the Capital and Infrastructure Levy has also been reduced in all five years of the new plan and will be covered entirely by general surplus funds in 2020, meaning $0 from taxation. She said general surplus funds will also cover 50 per cent of the levy in 2021 and 2022.
“We hope to reach the optimal level of investment by the year 2024, however we will be throughly reviewing this plan for the [capital and infrastructure levy] in the financial planning process that will begin in a couple months,” she said.
In a written report she presented to council, Attiana wrote that the new five-year infrastructure investment plan was created under the assumption that the impacts of COVID-19 will hit the town’s economy hard over the next three years.
“This investment plan will be reconsidered each year in the financial planning process as economic data becomes available,” she wrote in her report. “The levy is part of a long term investment plan to ensure that funds are available for future replacement of infrastructure. The District included minimal risk in the investment model when determining the optimal level of investment. By minimizing risk there is an allowance for emergency events to occur without significantly impacting the model over the long term.”
Unrelated to COVID-19, Tofino also saw a $10 million indoor recreation facility vanish from its books earlier this year when a $7 million grant it had been depending on to pay for the project was denied by the federal government.
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Attiana said Tofino’s expected taxation has been reduced in all five years of the new financial plan, though she noted that those numbers will be revisited during council’s annual budget discussions.
“We have prepared this plan with the best information that we have available at this time. However, we know that the financial impact of COVID-19 will extend beyond 2020,” she said. “As we continue to develop financial plans and tax policy, we must ensure that those plans and policies allow the municipality to effectively provide essential services, generate and ensure stable future revenues and support an efficient and reliable municipality…These needs need to be balanced with developing plans and policies that consider the fiscal health of taxpayers and the community at large and respond to the current economic climate.”
She added that, like all aspects of life, COVID-19 has forced financial planning into a “new normal” and suggested her department will be under a mutated lens.
“More than ever before, it will be important to maintain transparency and consult our taxpayers on a more regular basis as we move forward,” she said.
Attiana thanked her district colleagues as well as council for their support over the past two months as the financial plan was redeveloped.
“I also wanted to thank the community for their patience and understanding as we navigated through this extraordinary time,” she said.
Osborne commended Attiana for her work and said the district should be “really proud” of the new financial plan.
“You and your staff have done such a tremendous job of answering questions all along. I really want to applaud you and thank you for all of the work that you’ve done…Thank you Nyla for your leadership in this time,” she said. “That’s a tremendous amount of work and now you already get to turn your mind to next year because that’s how it works in your department.”
Along with the tax decrease, Tofino’s council has also approved a new collection strategy that will allow residents to wait until Oct. 1 to pay their property taxes without penalty.