Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Richter Report - Dec 13, 2006 - Don't Dare Blame Tax Hikes On Firefighters

December 8, 2006
Dear Editor

Re: Langley Times Editorial – December 8, 2006

There are always two sides to every story.

As noted in your recent editorial, Langley Township Council is thinking about approving a budget that will increase the municipal portion of property taxes by either 4.95% or 6.5% this year and by 77% over the next 10 years. I think this is very unsettling news for all members of our community and especially for those who are currently on fixed incomes or who are single parents. As a baby boomer (and one of many who will probably be retiring in the next decade), I find this latest municipal budget frightening. It is sad to think that people must now consider their increasing property taxes as a key component of retirement planning if they hope to stay where they currently live once they do retire.

To me, what is even more distressing is that your editorial is laying the blame for these astronomical tax increases at the feet of our firefighting service – a service that we all rely on in this community, especially the elderly and anyone needing emergency services. After reading your editorial, I wonder if your source has given you all of the facts.

So, here’s the other side.

Last year (2005), Council directed the Fire Department to go out into the community and to hold public open houses on the question of full time firefighters. The Township’s Paid Call Fire Department did an exceptional job in carrying out this mandate.

They determined that the cost of full time firefighters in the Township would equal a 2% increase in the Township’s base tax rate for each fire hall that was brought onto full time status. They put together a plan of how many halls should be fulltime and when they should go “online”. They went to malls throughout the Township with complete information on costs, timelines, and budget implications. They had flip charts and questionnaires. They asked Township taxpayers if this was something they wanted and something they could financially support. They spent many hours talking to many people from all walks of life and from all corners in this community.

The answer that came back to Council from this very public process was a resounding “Yes – Do it”. In fact, the independent consultant that assisted the Township’s Fire Department throughout the public consultation process commented in his final written report (which is a matter of public record) that he has never seen stronger or more unified public support for an initiative like this. He said it was abundantly clear that this community supported the proposed graduated move to fulltime fire service.

I think your editorial belittles these efforts because all of the people involved in this process, whether firefighter or taxpayer, genuinely care about their community and are genuinely concerned about this important aspect of public safety. They know it’s not free.

Council decided to listen to the Fire Department, to the Consultant, and to the public. As a group, they decided to move in a graduated manner towards fulltime fire service. This clearly meant a 2% tax increase in each year that a new fire hall was brought into fulltime service. This is definitely a tax increase that I and the taxpaying public support. I have never disputed that.

What I do dispute and what your editorial fails to elaborate on is how a 2% per year tax increase for each year that a full time fire hall is implemented manages to balloon to a 4.95% increase, then to a 6.5% increase, then to a 7% increase and ultimately to a 77% increase over 10 years?

It is blatantly unfair to lay these astronomical tax increases at the feet of the firefighters. The Township got its first fulltime fire hall in October 2006. The tax year started in January 2006. Taxpayers throughout the township actually paid a 6.6% tax increase in 2006 for a quarter year of fulltime fire service when that service was only supposed to cost 2% for a full year.

In 2007, a second fire hall will come online but again not until October –another ¾’s of the way through the year. So why is it that another 6.5% tax increase is yet again being proposed for a quarter year of service? The third fulltime fire hall is not planned to be online until 2009 but the current budget being considered by Council also includes a 7% increase in taxes in 2008.

I think that fulltime firefighting is a tax smokescreen that the Township is hiding behind. The reality is that spending under the current Mayor is out-of-control. It has gotten progressively worse with each year that he has spent in office and with each Council that he has had more control over.

It is wrong to blame the financial problems currently faced by the Township on the firefighters. They have done nothing to deserve to be the scapegoats. All they ever wanted was to provide a safer community and they took a very reasonable and affordable approach to doing so.

Look instead to 2 mayor-controlled councils that have gone out of their way to say that compact lot development is OK when it’s obviously clear that new development is not paying for itself. Look instead at spending to buy a golf course. Look instead to $2+ Million cost overruns on a grandstand in front of a leaky $1 Million artificial turf field. Look instead to $700,000+ per year in policing subsidies to Langley City. These are just a few of the many Alberts Council spending decisions that should be questioned and investigated.

Yes, fulltime fire fighting is a significant cost driver in the Township’s budget. We all knew that it would be. But, it’s not the main cost driver and it’s not fair to lay the blame for a financially incompetent Council solely at the door of this vital community service.

Yours truly,
Kim Richter.
(Kim Richter is in her 3rd term as Langley Township Councillor and also is a Professor of Business at Kwantlen University College. She holds a masters degree in health administration and was a health care management consultant.


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