Months after Osoyoos town council revealed a plan to increase property and utility tax by nearly 40 per cent, frustrations from residents in the south Okanagan community remain over elected officials' management of the town's finances and their response to growing public criticism over the issue.
The level of dissatisfaction with the proposed 2024 budget was apparent at a public meeting the town held Tuesday where officials gave a presentation meant to answer residents' questions about the budget and provided a chance for residents to address town council.
"I condemn this entire budget. I don't trust the numbers that this government has given us," said Dylan Sharhon, one of the first Osoyoos citizens to take to the mic at the meeting after he and others in attendance listened to a presentation from the town's chief administrative officer (CAO), Rod Risling.
The major issues facing the seven-member town council are a sewer system that has long been the source of odour complaints, as well as aging drinking water infrastructure that has left the community of 5,500 residents with water that is both discoloured and high in manganese — which can cause adverse health effects if consumed in high amounts over time, according to Health Canada.
Council approved the 2024 budget — aimed at tackling the infrastructure issues — in late October last year, but earlier this month rescinded the budget for a third reading following public backlash.
Town staff say a failure to set aside funds to repair and replace infrastructure at the municipality's sewage lagoon and water treatment plant has resulted in the need for tax increases to fund overdue replacement projects. (Google Maps)
The budget, which laid out $6.8 million in wastewater improvements and nearly $16 million for water system infrastructure, was met with disbelief and outrage because of the reliance on property tax and utility increases amounting to nearly 39 per cent.
At Tuesday's meeting, Risling gave an overview of budgetary challenges the town faces and explained that the town's infrastructure issues had been put aside for too many years with taxes only rising marginally while infrastructure continued degrade.
'It is not going to get easier'
"Decisions need to be made and we must proceed with some of the fixes. It is not going to get easier and we need to start someplace," Risling said.
A failed sewage lagoon in the summer of 2023 produced a strong odour throughout the town of Osoyoos. Aging sewage and water infrastructure are two of council's top priorities. (Supplied by the Town of Osoyoos)
At the start of Tuesday's meeting Mayor Sue McKortoff and town councillors spoke about the need to maintain civility for the duration of the public meeting, due to the heightened tensions in the community and the high level of criticism and personal attacks directed at elected officials and town staff on social media over the past few months.
"We live in a time of strong government distrust but I never expected it to affect us as a community," Coun. Johnny Cheong said to the audience.
Loss of community's confidence
When Risling finished his presentation the majority of the nearly two dozen speakers expressed their frustrations with council's performance in managing the town's finances.
"I am one of the 43 per cent of [Osoyoos residents] 65 plus in age. We live on a limited income," said Jennifer Karp.
"There's people like me out there that are at a point where this is not doable for us and we [will] have to move."
Other speakers, including former town councillor Ted Cronmiller, urged council to "make sacrifices" and "re-tool this budget."
Barry Romanko, who was Osoyoos's CAO for a decade before retiring in 2019, criticized town council for giving staff and consultants "blind trust" in deciding the hefty tax increases.
"We need a council willing to challenge the experts to develop an affordable path to our needed improvements instead of the currently chosen easy path of inflicting historically absurd tax increases," Romanko said.
"The community's confidence and trust in council and administration is totally eroded."
Romanko and a few others asked for a referendum on the final budget.
In an interview with CBC News the day after the community meeting, Mayor McKortoff said she and her colleagues would review suggestions from residents.
"We will look at what we need to do. We will probably go line by line on the municipal budget and see what needs to be done," McKortoff said.