City challenges census results in hopes of avoiding substantial rise in policing costs

The City of Fernie is challenging the results of the 2016 census to avoid a substantial rise in policing costs. Residents will be paying an extra 1.8 per cent in taxes this year if the census results are upheld.

CAO Norm McInnis said the city has been in ongoing discussion with Statistics Canada and the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to formally confirm the 2016 census numbers. The city’s position is that it should not be required to sign the Municipal Policing Agreement until it gets confirmation from StatsCan.

“I do not expect to hear back until after the provincial election,” he said.

However, if the census numbers are confirmed, the city will retroactively become responsible for 70 per cent of its policing costs as of April 1 or $667,500.

According to The Police Act, municipalities with populations greater than 5,000 are required to enter into a Municipal Police Unit Agreement (MPUA), which makes them responsible for 70 per cent of their policing costs. For the City of Fernie this would amount to $890,000 per year compared to the $346,000 it had been previously paying.

The city had no money saved to pay for increased policing. Its 2017 five-year financial plan called for a gradual tax increase to cover the expense. There would have been $1.75 million available at the time of the next census in 2021.

The city will be reducing its contribution to reserves to keep this year’s tax increase to a minimum.

On April 24, council passed its annual tax rate bylaw, which includes a 6.4 per cent tax increase.

A provisional budget that was approved by council in December called for a 4.6 per cent tax increase but the cost of paying 70 per cent of policing from April until the end of the year will mean 1.8 per cent more taxes.

The increase is being passed before the results of the census appeal is revealed because the city has to approve its annual tax rate bylaw before May 15 in order have tax bills out by the end of May as taxes are due July 4. The tax rate bylaw is required in order to calculate property taxes.

“I think that our finance department has done a really good job of bringing forward recommendations to fund policing ahead of when we expected,” said McInnis.

In March, the 2016 census found that Fernie’s population had reached 5,249 residents.

With a population that surged 18 per cent while most rural municipalities were shrinking, the 2016 census revealed that Fernie was the nation’s fastest growing community of its kind, a result that caught both the city and the province by surprise.

In a statement, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said that based on analysis of B.C. Stats data, it didn’t look as though Fernie would go over the 5,000 threshold, although they were made aware of the potential impacts and possibility of going over in this census by staff.