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Vancouver residents to bear tax increase burden

Vancouver residents are looking at a 4.2-per-cent property tax increase.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In what has been another tough financial year for all of the region's municipalities, Vancouver has come in with a general tax increase of 2.2 per cent, lower than most.

But city residents will actually end up facing a higher increase that many others, because the Vision council is still planning to shift a part of the tax burden from businesses to residents before the budget is finalized for 2011.

That will turn that 2.2 per cent into a 4.2-per-cent increase for residents and a 0.2-per-cent increase for businesses.

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As a result, the tax increase for residents will be higher than what municipalities such as West Vancouver, Surrey, Coquitlam, the District of North Vancouver, the Township of Langley and Burnaby are aiming for. West Vancouver, already with the highest taxes in the region, is looking to maintain current rates, while Burnaby and Langley ponder possible 3.95-per-cent increases.

Only Port Coquitlam, projecting a 5-per-cent increase, Pitt Meadows, at 4.35 per cent, and Maple Ridge and Abbotsford, at 4.3 per cent, are higher, according to media and city reports from around the region.

Vancouver Councillor Raymond Louie defended the city's increase, which comes with about $13-million in trims to various city services.

"We have kept a consistent tight rein on the spending: not filling vacancies, managing more efficiently," he said. "But obviously, there is an ongoing challenge with the economy."

The council gave last-minute reprieves in several areas when it voted on the budget Tuesday, kicking in $1.3-million so that the Board of Parks and Recreation will not have to shut down or stop cleaning washrooms or start charging fees for children's sports teams.

As well, the extra money will help five libraries maintain their regular operating hours and give the Vancouver Police Department another $200,000 for overtime to deal with gang problems. Mr. Louie estimated that would pay for about 2,000 hours' worth of police work.

Another $275,000 was added to the budget to give the city a pot of money available to support non-profits and faith groups working on homelessness programs.

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Mr. Louie said that although the tax shift that will push the residential tax increase up to 4.2 per cent hasn't been voted on yet, it is something the Vision council is committed to in spite of opposition from various groups.

The city has been under pressure from business groups for years to lower business taxes, which are higher than anywhere else in the region.

A business with a property worth $1-million paid $9,780 in Vancouver city taxes last year, while one in Surrey worth the same amount paid $7,370. Vancouver received $260-million from businesses last year - more than Surrey collected from residents and businesses together.

Mayors elsewhere in the region said they struggled this year to keep taxes down for a third year of tough recession budgets.

"We're trying to be really creative about getting alternative revenue streams into the city instead of raising taxes," said Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts. The city is starting a $52-million construction program for much-needed community centres, parks and more, but is financing it through casino revenue, parking fees and income it hopes to generate through its development corporation.

Like many mayors, Ms. Watts said that it's a bad idea to not increase the budget, as tempting as it is in terms of popularity.

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"Politically, it sounds great. But you have to deal with the rate of inflation just on the services you're already providing."

Mayor Richard Stewart, in Coquitlam, brought in the lowest tax increase Coquitlam has seen in years, at 3.18 per cent. He said it was hard, because Coquitlam, like every other city in the region, had to pay a 4-per-cent increase for union salaries already negotiated.

"But your residents have limited means. Many have suffered two years of lower-than-normal employment. So we pulled back on anything we could."

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