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BUDGET: Optimism reigns at Coquitlam city hall

For the first time in half a decade, Coquitlam city managers this week spoke about the positive state of the public purse.

For the first time in half a decade, Coquitlam city managers this week spoke about the positive state of the public purse.

Gone were the dire warnings from city manager Peter Steblin about the need for belt-tightening at city hall just as the newly elected council is to start budget talks.

Instead, Steblin painted a much rosier picture of the city coffers, crediting staff for making cutbacks during the recession and during five years of high labour costs.

By comparison, two years ago, at the height of the global economic downturn, Coquitlam faced a $5-million shortfall from lower interest rates on investments and declining construction revenues.

But last year saw historical highs in building, especially on Burke Mountain and in Burquitlam and City Centre, where the Evergreen Line will run.

Planning and development GM Jim McIntyre said staff last year issued 2,839 permits - an increase of 24% over 2010 - while 1,662 housing units were approved - up 35% over the previous year. As a result, building construction value jumped by 42%.

Add to that the work on Evergreen and the Port Mann/Highway 1 project and the city is booming, he said.

"There's been a lot of public sector transportation investment and, in my view, where public sector investment is focused and effective, the private sector investment will follow," McIntyre said.

As well, the finance standing committee heard on Monday the city is flush with more revenues such as:

$1.5 million in assessment-related increases from new growth;

$805,300 in service volume rises;

$317,700 from RCMP recoveries;

$100,000 in grants;

and $190,700 in fees and charges.

"Coquitlam is blessed to be at a place in time and geography where lots of things are happening," Steblin said. "Our financial house is in good order. We're in good shape to deal with new priorities."

The finance committee, which is made up of all members of council, listened to city managers and cultural group leaders all day Monday and Tuesday as they presented long lists of 2011 accomplishments and even longer wish lists for 2012 programs and services - and funding.

Still, Steblin cautioned council the buck can only stretch so far as half the city's revenues come from cash-strapped home and business property owners.

Indeed, the high cost of property taxes was a hot-button issue in last November's municipal campaign, when many voters complained about the successive hikes. For this year, city staff and councillors are hoping to keep the tax increase to between 3% and 5%.

Among this year's requests council will consider are:

addition of six Mounties to continue with its 10-year strategy of hiring six police officers annually - a plan Coquitlam RCMP has veered away from in recent years due to cutbacks and redeployments;

addition of eight firefighters to start staffing Burke Mountain, at the Coast Meridian Road auxiliary fire station;

and major capital projects such as $9.6 million for the new Burke fire station and $10 million for Place Maillardville renovations.

City council is expected to make its decision on Feb. 13, with first, second and third readings of the 2012 financial plan set for Feb. 20.

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