“Emperor’s New Clothes” on parade at Hagensborg Water District’s AGM?

I attended the recent Hagensborg Water AGM, which provided little clarity on our future direction.

Dear Editor,

I attended the recent Hagensborg Water AGM, which provided little clarity on our future direction. Chair Ken Dunsworth rambled through a long and repetitive power point presentation which provided little new information regarding the district’s efforts to secure an affordable water treatment system, upgrade the dam and intake or replace the ageing water main. Considering that costs for just these objectives still top out at more than six million dollars, he admitted that without a significant level of funding support from government, they were not achievable.

Dunsworth also gave a brief update on the Point of Entry pilot project, which has experienced a number of problems, centering mostly on recurring turbidity commonly associated with surface water systems. Even if water users were to be provided with a point of entry system tomorrow, he acknowledged that maintenance and recapitalization costs alone would be beyond the ability of ratepayers to sustain, incurring annual costs that would exceed the present $500 per parcel tax levy.

He then launched into a discussion of water tolls, which have not increased since 1984. He compared this to very large increases in other costs to the district over the same time period, focusing on insurance, fuel etc. Strangely, he did not mention the even greater proportional increase in parcel taxes. Nor did he mention the large increase in spending on administration, particularly in the past fiscal year. Granted, water tolls and parcel taxes are two different things, but my wallet makes no such distinction when it shells out one of the highest annual amounts for water service in BC.

Questions from ratepayers centered on those increases in administrative costs; a query about the duties of the CAO was not satisfactorily answered. Further questions involved the possibility of the Hagensborg Water District partnering with the CCRD, to which Dunsworth replied that ratepayers might have to vote at some future date in a referendum on this topic. Yet I have confirmed that to date not a single exploratory meeting between the water board and our local government has taken place.

There were salient points made about the lack of efficacy of UV treatment systems in general, and why we were continuing to pay such high parcel taxes; the response seemed grounded in the board’s belief that it was in everyone’s best interest to curry favor with the province and Vancouver Coastal Health by demonstrating the financial commitment each household was willing to make toward achieving an acceptable treatment system.

The fact that any such treatment system had already been demonstrated to be financially out of reach for most small water districts such as ours didn’t seem to deter the district from continuing to levy draconian charges on its own rate payers.

When asked if other small water districts were charging similar higher fees, the chair responded that they were basically “doing nothing” while awaiting provincial government action(s). No mention was made of those small districts who are actively negotiating partnership agreements with their municipalities or local governments, agreements which would most assuredly open up significant funding opportunities to them.

Instead, our board clings to the notion that the provincial government will supply funding directly to improvement districts and local service areas in future. The province has indicated on numerous occasions that organizations such as Hagensborg Water District do not meet its desired standards of accountability and therefore will not be eligible for direct funding.

Curiously, no mention was made of the now discredited fundraising scheme that was the subject of an excellent article in the Coast Mt. News (April 9, page A4). That article included a suggestion that the board would determine the final fate of this harebrained scheme (my apologies to all rabbits out there!) at its March meeting, so I was anticipating an announcement to this effect, together with some sort of public apology.

Given the ethical and governance issues raised by this matter over the last six months, a move to restore public trust was appropriate. Instead, the board appears determined to continue with its ostrich-like behaviour. When asked by this paper to clarify written responses given previously to questions about this issue, the board refused to do so, and then took the unprecedented step of formally withdrawing those previous comments. I doubt that I’m the only rate payer who finds these Orwellian actions extremely troubling.

While Chair Dunsworth repeatedly stated that the board is always open to receiving questions or comments, the complete absence recently of the kind of public information sessions and special meetings we all attended when the decision was first taken to investigate a UV point of entry water treatment system puts a lie to this. I challenged Ken and the board to hold more public information sessions and/or special general meetings in the coming year; we can’t ask informed questions if we are not informed in the first place!

This meeting left me feeling more than a little uneasy, as if we were all somehow disconnected from the reality of the dollars that have continued to flow from our wallets and pockets into a kind of purposeless black hole.

It reminded me of that old Scandinavian folk tale (Danish, I believe) entitled The Emperor’s New Clothes; we all seemed to be waiting for someone to expose the truth behind this expensive farce…and yet there is some good news to report. With the election of Dianne Tuck to the board, ratepayers will finally have a trustee who combines extensive fiscal management experience with a level-headed approach to problem solving. And I am assured that she can and will recognize a group of naked men when she sees them!

Sincerely,Kevin O’Neill