Sooke councillors are stuck between a rock and a hard place as they stare down a 3.3 per cent average property tax increase for the 2021 budget.
For the last nine years, the average tax hike on residents has been 2.16 per cent, with the highest occurring in 2019 when it was 7.18 per cent. In places other than Sooke, councillors would be applauded for their handling of the city finances – but in Sooke, it’s a different story.
It’s nobody’s surprise that Sooke has been repeatedly cited as one of the fastest-growing communities in the province. But there’s the rub.
As the community grows, so do its infrastructure costs from roads to sewers to parks and sidewalks. Don’t forget about the inevitable downloading of services onto the municipality from senior levels of government.
Contributing to Sooke’s problem is the disproportionate ratio between residential and commercial properties. Sooke needs more commercial properties that pay a higher tax rate.
The municipality is treading water, which is OK for the near future but could be disastrous as the infrastructure begins to age and there are no savings to replace it.
This year, the council couldn’t cut the budget significantly because most of what Sooke offers to its residents is essential services such as police and fire departments. In other words, there’s not a lot of gravy here.
Mayor Maja Tait admits the province serving up COVID-19 relief funding helps now, but eventually, the money has to come from somewhere, and it will likely come from higher taxes.
There are options, of course: increasing user fees, trimming programs and services here and there, cutting grants to community organizations, closing underused facilities. But most of these are stopgap solutions to what will be an ongoing budget dilemma over the next few years unless more money starts flowing into the municipality.
Councillors and district staff, of course, know the challenges. They understand they need to be ahead or on top of growth that they know is coming. Later this year, the staff is expected to unveil an asset management report on what needs replacing (and their cost) now and in the future. There are already new policies in place on hiring related to growth.
“We’re getting there, and I think once we see that infrastructure happen, it will make more sense,” Tait said.
Property taxes are unpopular. Indeed, most public sentiment studies about alternative tax programs consistently find the property tax the most disliked.
As Benjamin Franklin so morbidly reminded us, taxes are a reality, and it’s the only route forward in Sooke’s case.