The City of Castlegar is preparing to pass a budget and five year financial plan that indicates spending on new infrastructure to the Airport lands of approximately $4.2 million for water and $1.6 million for sewer over the next two years. This is money that is coming out of the water and sewer funds respectively – funded by user fees, not by developers or the airport fund. Out of the whole budget being proposed, this is a huge project, representing a huge percentage of the total budget and there is no defined/definite revenue source for this expenditure. I don’t believe that development of the airport lands should be undertaken at the expense (literally) of existing residents. If the land never sells, we are holding millions of dollars of assets that will just depreciate. My questions to council are simply –
- How is this project a priority given the recent revenue issues with Celgar, and the fact that this project was intended to be funded by grant money, that is evidently scarce across the province and country?
- Is the cost of this project included in the land costs for any of the parcels recently sold or available for purchase in the future?
- If the City has somewhere around $66 million of water upgrades to undertake in the next 20 years – how was it decided that this project was the highest priority, the extension of a line that services land that may one day be for sale, rather than shoring up the service we already have?
There are arguments for providing this service, particularly for the South East Fire Centre refilling of aerial water bombers – but this is a regional or even provincial service, why is the City bent over upgrading their water supply? What is the rate of return on investment? Where is the economic model that supports the City providing this service – (there may well be one, but it has never been presented to the public)?
The Public Process
Robyn and I (and the kids) were some of the only people who attended the public presentations on the budget. Comments from councillors represent a belief that the public didn’t show up because they “trust council”. When less than .5% of the population attends a budget meeting, I can kind of understand council thinking that. I think it runs deeper. Most people, when presented with 30 pages of spreadsheet,find that the tendency for eyes to glaze over is pretty overwhelming – they’d rather someone else take responsibility. Equally, when a recent news article informs of budget cuts and tax rises, it really didn’t tell the whole story – when a cut to the planning budget of over 11% was announced, a look at the details tell a different story from what one would expect to see – the majority of the cuts were project based, not service or staffing – but honestly, who is going to look that deeply at the numbers?
The Role of the Media?
The level of media reporting on the budget has been generally conciliatory at best, accepting without question the budget as posed by staff and council. I wouldn’t be so harsh, except that the City just scraped through a tight spot with taxes and Celgar, (which was well reported by the media).
Considering the overall tax increase for municipal services to a residential property is likely to be around 15% for an average home, on top of a 15% increase in water and sewer rates for 2010, restraint in fees and taxes for residential properties appears to be far from a priority – yet there is talk of cuts. While major industrial taxes are going down (16.5%) and commercial taxes remain steady – the home owner is hit with the burden. Tough decisions have been made without adequate public input – I don’t see that council is to particularly to blame for this, but the level of community accountability is woeful and they should be concerned making this decision without the direct support of the public – not the inferred consent from silence.
While many in this part of the world are wiping their brow saying things like, “Thank God superman saved the day and BC / Canada didn’t end up in the same place as America”; the truth is simply that despite the level of spending that has already been committed by governments and developers in cities around Canada, we are not out of the woods by any leap of the imagination. Castlegar is a great place to live but the focus for Council should be less on growth and more on consolidation and improvement. We don’t need to spend money on projects just to keep up with the Jones.