Port Alberni City Council got another budget surprise Monday, Feb. 3 — this time from its insurer — amid ongoing efforts to reduce a projected average residential tax hike of 5.3 percent.
A reappraisal by Aon, which provides municipal insurance, has brought a $218,000 increase, raising the city’s annual premium to $848,000.
The unexpected cost hike, another complication in the city’s 2020 budget deliberations, was revealed to staff when the city’s insurance renewal arrived Jan. 29, well into the fiscal planning process.
“That is an insane increase,” said Mayor Sharie Minions. “With an increase this significant, it should be coming to council for approval,” she added.
Chief Administrative Officer Tim Pley said staff would be happy to explore competitive price quotes. There is no certainty that the increase can be avoided in time for budget preparation, said Rosalyn McCauley, deputy director of finance.
Port Alberni is the only municipality on the Island that hasn’t switched over to the Municipal Insurance Association of B.C. for its coverage, Minions noted. Set up 30 years ago, the agency is owned and operated by local governments.
“I’ve never understood why we don’t use them,” she said. “Now may be the time to change.”
The insurance revelation came after committee of the whole discussions focused on saving, deferring or redirecting items in the $30-million city budget and before public objections were raised over plans to spend up to $1.5 million revitalizing and beautifying upper Third Avenue. Just $500,000 of that total is slated to come from general revenue, the remainder from grants and reserves, but the whole initiative has drawn stern criticism in social media. A number of beautification critics put their concerns straight to council on Monday.
“It’s been tried before,” said Ann Gagnon, a lifelong resident. “We have a problem with crime,” she added, complaining of drug addiction along lower Third. “We can’t afford half the things the city needs.”
Jane Pfannenschmidt objected to plans to narrow the avenue and switch to parallel parking in order to accommodate more pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
“We have a strike right now,” she said. “The economy’s hurting. I don’t care if it’s only five cents. I don’t want it.”
Minions said the city is well aware of a Facebook poll expressing opposition to the project.
“We are listening to the concerns people are bringing forward,” she said. “We are not ready to move forward with the project as it is.”
Michael Moore spoke in favour of the Uptown revitalization but cautioned council about what he sees “a lot of can kicking,” cost cutting by deferring expenses until next year. The whole of Third Avenue needs improvement, he added.
“We have a one pillar of a four-pillar approach,” Moore said, alluding to the overdose prevention site and a need for greater supports to deal with addiction. “Twenty-five percent is just not cutting it.”
Homelessness and addiction are provincial and federal government responsibilities, the mayor said, responding to concerns raised on several fronts. The city is partnering with non-profit agencies while providing incentives for non-market housing, she noted. Its policing budget is already the costliest per capita in B.C.
“We’re trying to work at this from all angles,” Minions said. “It’s not always through direct funding from the budget.”
By delaying and deferring some capital costs, council was able to ensure replacement of self-contained breathing apparatus for firefighters remains a budget priority.
Council next meets on Monday, Feb. 10 for its regular council meeting at 2 p.m. The meetings are also streamed live on the city’s website at www.portalberni.ca/council-agendas-minutes and posted to the city’s YouTube channel.