Oak Bay councillors and staff zoomed into Thursday’s online council meeting with a goal to provide relief for Oak Bay residents and they did just that, reducing the 2020 budget from an 8.1 per cent increase to 6.9 per cent.
The five-hour marathon meeting started with minor technical difficulties sorting the Zoom app then ran smoothly, all things considered, for council’s first-ever online meeting while tackling a long list of items.
The key point on the agenda was an amended budget, the COVID-19 Financial Plan Risk and Financial Hardship Mitigation Measures, which is a series of recommendations presented by Director of Financial Services, Chris Paine, that reduced the budget 1.2 per cent.
Council voted in favour five to two. It means a median raise on property taxes of $17 per month for residents compared to the previously proposed $24 raise.
The savings come from a broad-based set of temporary measures such as relaxation around deadlines and penalties for tax payments, with some moderate savings from the deferral of hiring.
We continue to accept and process land use applications, however, we have modified our process so we can continue to provide services to the community: https://t.co/j0I6Mieaiw pic.twitter.com/8NLth2iNs7
— District of Oak Bay (@DistrictOakBay) April 23, 2020
“We’re a bit more hamstrung than the province and the feds in that we can’t run a deficit,” said Mayor Kevin Murdoch. “We want to make sure we’re providing supports in ways that we can during this time. The approach we’ve taken here is that now we can look at some more targeted relief for Oak Bay taxpayers experiencing financial hardship.”
Oak Bay is taking advantage of the province’s move to delay school tax collection until Dec. 31, which means Oak Bay will have about $8 million in cash flow that it can use.
“That’s a big piece of our property revenues, which are about $22 million,” Murdoch said.
Among the cost-saving measures is the suspension of penalties and interest on overdue utility payments. What stands out about this measure is that it’s a cumbersome bylaw amendment. It is for bills due on March 16 and after.
Council also adopted recommendations to shift the property tax due date from July 1 to Aug. 4 and cut the tax penalty in half for August and defer a second penalty until October.
Collection of Oak Bay’s solid waste fee, which is about $275 per household, has been delayed until the fall.
Council also confirmed a relaxation on parking enforcement to reduce ticketing as parking patterns have changed, Paine noted.
“We’re trying to take an educational [and compliance] approach [to parking enforcement] and less of a punitive approach,” Paine said.
As Murdoch noted, Oak Bay will now explore targeted relief for residents such as adjusting the fees for business licenses for business unable to operate. There’s also the possibility of waving bonds for small things such as tree planting, and the relaxation on building permit security deposits. Tree replacement bonds are $500 and are refunded 36 months later (once the tree is proven to be healthy and permanent. Staff could also remit building permit bonds in portions throughout the building process rather than at the end of the building process.
The next step for Oak Bay council is to send a letter to the province that requests increased amounts for Homeowner Grants and to reinstate a previously used hardship deferment program on residential and commercial property tax. Property tax can be deferred in part, or in whole, and then paid back to the province when the property is sold (it is registered as a lien on the property).
“It’s a great tool that simplifies everything,” Murdoch noted.
Council also voted to postpone any committee meetings, including the committee of the whole sessions, until at least May 31 as public gatherings remain banned. Council will, however, return to a consistent schedule of meetings held online.
The Oak Bay Business Improvement Association president Martin Cownden delivered a somber report during the meeting, explaining the BIA will use the $100,000 to stimulate and support business for those struggling members in Oak Bay Village, rather than put it towards Oak Bay’s annual cultural events such as the Spring Nosh and Summer Night Markets.
As it is, Oak Bay is facing a quiet summer with no Spring Nosh, Summer Night Markets, Tea Party, Oak Bay High prom, car festivals, or other large gatherings.