Shattered paper mill in the abandoned town Ocean Falls in British Columbia, Canada. Ocean Falls was a paper mill company town established in 1909 at the site of a seasonal Heiltsuk Nation village. In 1973, the company sold the mill and the town to the provincial government. After Social Credit (conservative) party won the provincial elections, the mill was closed. In March 1985, most of the town was bulldozed and the remaining residents forced to leave. (Christopher Grabowski photo)

CCRD attends annual UBCM conference

Ocean Falls, health care, and transportation all brought forth

CCRD directors and staff continued to push for financial reconciliation last month when they attended the annual Union of BC Municipalities convention in Vancouver. The convention brings together municipalities from across the province and offers them the opportunity to meet with provincial and federal leaders to bring forth their concerns, both individually and as an organization.

One of the CCRD’s biggest challenges is revenue and service delivery. The CCRD’s tax-based revenue is the lowest in the province, nine times lower than the next largest regional district of Mount Waddington. In an entire year the district collects only $760,216 in tax revenue; a paltry sum when it comes to providing the necessary services for over 3,000 residents.

Like all regional districts, the CCRD’s primary source of revenue is property taxes. However, like many regional districts across the province, a number of residents within the district live on reserve and therefore are outside the primary fiscal framework which funds local governments: property tax. Within the CCRD there are a total of 3319 residents and 1403 live off reserve.

In a nutshell, this means is that the regional district is trying to provide services for 100 percent of its residents with a little over 40 percent of the funding for its general operating budget. It should be made clear that the CCRD’s general operating budget excludes grants and other sources of revenue.

In addition, the average household within the district is $33,300, which is $27,5000 lower than the average in B.C., and between 1991 and 2001 the region’s economic generating ability declined by $21 million.

“As a district we really struggle with tax requisition and service delivery,” explained CCRD Area C representative Jayme Kennedy. “We simply cannot provide services that residents really desire, such as recreation facilities, as we do not have the revenue to support them.”

This has been a challenge for the district since its inception, and was tackled head-on at last year’s UBCM where the CCRD’s 2018 resolution asked the federal government to make up the shortfall in its general operation funding by representing the residents that live on reserve and provide the remaining funds in the form of federal transfer payments.

They continued with this work this year, presenting at UBCM and continuing to lobby the federal government by requesting they support a pilot project to finance this initiative.

“If we were able to make up the shortfall in our tax revenues with federal transfer payments it would free us up so much,” explained CCRD Chair Samuel Schooner. “We would be more on par with other districts with the services they offer and this would do a lot to attract and retain people in our area.”

Area A director Dan Bertrand also spearheaded an initiative aimed at dealing with derelict buildings in Ocean Falls, citing both a human safety and environmental concern, especially with the increased traffic the new Northern Sea Wolf ferry service is now providing.

Ocean Falls, now home to about 35 year-round residents, was once a bustling town on the central coast with a population of over 3,000 people. Now many abandoned buildings and homes are decaying, posing a safety concern for visitors and a conundrum for the district – the two largest buildings within the district, a 400-room hotel and a five-story apartment building – are both located in Ocean Falls.

“Ocean Falls contributes approximately 25 percent to the CCRD’s property tax base, but with decaying abandoned buildings their assessed values and contribution to our regional tax base is decreasing, in that sense is not an issue we cannot afford to ignore this issue,” said Bertrand.

The meeting was attended by Premier John Horgan, who himself worked in Ocean Falls when the mill was still operating in the 70s. Directors said Horgan was receptive to the presentation and encouraged the CCRD to find solutions to the issue with industry and First Nations.

Accordingly, at its most recent meeting the CCRD is moving forward to propose the establishment of a collaborative Ocean Falls Revitalization committee and is inviting the Premier to appoint a member, as well as the Department of Crown-Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Nuxalk Nation, the Heiltsuk Nation, and representatives from the Ocean Falls Improvement District and the Ocean Falls business community.

Director Bertrand points out that there are a lot ways to revitalize Ocean Falls, including private or First Nations investment, speculation taxes, or a derelict building bylaws which could be created to address the same problems that surround abandoned and derelict vessels, another problem facing many coastal residents.

Another issue facing Regional District residents is lack of transportation. Directors met with Minister of Transportation Clare Trevena to discuss the problem, requesting that the ministry offer a year-round scheduled bus service between Bella Coola and Williams Lake, as well as conduct a feasibility study regarding an affordable walk-on seabus services connecting the outer coast communities with Bella Coola.

“Transportation is a big problem,” said Schooner. “We know this based on other communities experiences in the north, so we’re hopeful that the establishment of a regular bus service would alleviate both transportation and safety concerns for residents here and across the Chilcotin.”

Kennedy also sat down with Ministry of Environment officials to discuss the ongoing challenges residents face living in grizzly country, requesting that the province conduct a bear hazard assessment and develop a human-bear management plan for the Valley.

“It’s a tough subject to address here in Bella Coola and it’s become such an emotional topic,” she said. “The CCRD’s position is that this is a provincial responsibility, but we have relayed our concerns and that includes stabilizing funding for WildSafe BC to continue its work here in the Valley.”

Recently publicized stories featuring Bella Coola residents living in tents before giving birth garnered province-wide attention and seemed to galvanize support for the cause, and the CCRD took the opportunity to discuss health care and related issues with Minister of Health Adrian Dix, in particular birthing and end of life care.

“There is no chance for people to celebrate births and on the other end of the spectrum many people are unable to pass away here,” said Schooner. “For millennial this was always the way, and it’s very difficult for people now to be unable to comfort their loved ones at the end of life.”

Meetings with ministers are often slotted for 15 short minutes, so directors need to be prepared to make their case quickly and effectively. Schooner shared that he was extremely grateful for the the district’s staff, who assisted the directors with their presentations and ensured they were well-prepared for all their confirmed meetings.

“Here at the CCRD we are demonstrating a working partnership with First Nations and the eyes of UBCM are on us right now,” said Schooner. “The CCRD is leading the charge and it’s a really exciting time.”

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An inscription over the fireplace in the lounge says: “Archie B Martin, an able executive whose sturdy character and sympathetic understanding of people created a community spirit at Ocean Falls, which is a monument to his memory.” (Christopher Grabowski photo)

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