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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver keeps tax hike modest in 2012 budget

Gregor Robertson photographed at Toronto City Hall following a meeting with Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford on Feb. 10, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver has joined other cost-conscious municipalities in the region by passing a 2012 budget with a modest 2.8-per-cent tax increase.

That's in line with the generally smaller increase many other cities passed this year, with Richmond and North Vancouver only allowing 2-per-cent increases, and Surrey and Langley City sticking close to 3 per cent. Port Moody, with just over 5 per cent, is the highest to date.

"It's clear most municipal councils are working very hard this year to stick to the rate of inflation," said Jordan Bateman, a former Langley councillor who is now with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. "It's still growing but it's better than past years."

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He said he thought councils were recognizing that people were hit hard last year by other tax increases on their property-tax bill, like that of TransLink, and they wanted to give everyone a break.

Vancouver's increase was slightly higher than the staff proposal of 2.5 per cent, after a small addition to the budget late Monday night for a $2-million "innovation fund."

The fund will give the city a little pot of money for projects where a small contribution might pull in bigger dollars from other governments, businesses or charities.

"This is an initiative to allow us to explore new ways of paying for city services," said Councillor Raymond Louie, who chairs the finance committee. He said that, in the past, the city has looked at either raising fees and taxes or cutting services as the only options.

That means the Vancouver budget for 2012 will be $36-million more than last year, for a total of $1.127-billion. Homeowners will pay slightly more than 2.8 per cent in extra taxes, because of council's decision to shift a small portion of the tax load away from businesses and onto residents.

About $8.5-million will be spent on hiring new police officers, after a freeze in the past two years on filling vacant positions. However, the city is eliminating 89 other positions elsewhere, most of them currently vacant and requiring no layoffs from the work force of about 6,650.

Mr. Louie said the newly created innovation fund will be targeted to economic, social and environmental projects, although he personally would like to see it used for social projects like housing or daycare.

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A recent example he cited was the electric car plug-in program, where a $70,000 contribution from the city brought in $800,000 from other parties.

The budget process drew little public attention, in spite of the fact that the city's own surveys showed a huge spike this year in the number of people who think they pay too much in city taxes.

The city tax bill, counting both taxes and utility fees, for an $800,000 house, will be about $2,460, $130 more than the previous year. For a commercial property assessed at $800,000, the tax bill will be about $7,570, about $210 more than the previous year.

Council's two Non-Partisan Association councillors and its Green Party member complained that the budget documents didn't have enough information for them to make a good decision.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr did try to get more money put in at the last minute for more firefighters but was unsuccessful.

The mayor said the budget protected core city programs in spite of having to be trimmed considerably from earlier projections.

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"Even in the midst of a challenging economic climate and a $52-million budget gap, we've delivered a budget that is balanced, progressive and pragmatic," Gregor Robertson said in a news release issued by the city.

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