Still on my learning curve I'm open to expanding my viewpoint -- but from my present vantage there was a decision taken that I could not support and honestly don't understand.
In its efforts to streamline the development approval process, North Cowichan -- traditionally understaffed in relation to comparable communities -- recently hired a new planner. The Deputy Director position, too long vacant, was also filled.
As well as successfully clearing backlog, this more sustainable staffing level allows more time for best practices to be reviewed. As a result, the Planning Department recommended that fees be brought closer into line with comparable communities.
On average, only 17% of the cost of planning services are paid by developers in North Cowichan, while similar communities have an average cost recovery rate of 63%. That means our taxpayers subsidize the lion's share of development planning costs, picking up more than twice as big a share of the tab as taxpayers in comparable communities do.
And the report only encompassed the Planning Department, which means the full processing costs are underestimated. The time and money spent on development applications by other municipal departments, through the Planning referral process, were not counted.
The report outlined 4 options for Council consideration:
Option 1 -- Continue the current high subsidy from taxpayers.
Option 2 -- Increase cost recovery rates from 17% to the 22-40% range.
Option 3 -- Increase cost recovery to the general average of 63%.
Option 4 -- Increase cost recovery to 100%.
Staff recommended Option 2, suggesting it be reviewed in two years' time. I supported this. It seemed the best course of action, and more than fair to the development community, going to the average rate in one fell swoop would not be -- but to my surprise, Council voted to postpone this recommendation for a year.
The arguments against raising fees were for the most part some version of: "Times are tough," and "Keeping these fees artificially low will attract investment."
I know that times are tough -- they're tough for many of us, including property tax payers. Should our taxpayers directly subsidize developers and purchasers of their products? And if so -- by how much? Development fees are a cost of doing business which are likely passed along to the homebuyer -- and, I might point out, they are also a tax write-off for developers.
North Cowichan already has low planning fees and low development cost charges (relative to comparable municipalities). Yet growth here has long been much slower than in the rest of the island, including those communities who pay much more in property taxes and charge developers much higher fees.
Our taxpayer-subsidized rates haven't appeared to create more business.
Don't get me wrong, I realize that the mark of a civil society is collectively paying for services for the good of the body politic. I realize that sometimes that means subsidizing private business to a degree. But this seems excessive to me, and unfair to the taxpayer.
As the planning report said, "Comparable municipalities have an average cost recovery rate of 63%. For North Cowichan to reach 63%, an additional average of approximately $277,000 must be generated from application fees, [for] a total annual average of about $372,500."
(Note that $277,000 represents approximately 1.3% of our municipality's annual property tax revenue.)
Raising the rates to the modest level recommended by staff in Option 2 would not generate that preferred number ($372,500) But improving our cost recovery to somewhere between 20% and 45%, as suggested, would noticably reduce the demand on taxpayers, while keeping a lower than average charge for development applications.
Instead, a chance to reduce the burden on taxpayers was missed.