The Hagensborg Waterworks District held its first of a series of promised public meetings last week and focused specifically on three topics: New Funding for Improvement Districts, Ratepayer Fees, and a Volunteer Model for the District.
Those familiar with the challenges faced by the HWD will recall that its position as an Improvement District places it at a serious disadvantage when it comes to accessing government funding. Improvement Districts, once prolific across the province, have been targeted since 2006 to be “phased out” by the provincial government, requiring them to join regional or municipal districts to access funds.
Presenter Scott Duward with the Williams Lake and District Chamber of Commerce, who is completing his Masters Degree Thesis on the government’s current legislation regarding Improvement Districts’ access (or rather lack thereof) to funding for capital development, told the crowd that they could see a significant shift in the way Improvement Districts are funded over the next few years.
“It’s become quite obvious that this policy isn’t working,” Duward explained. “There are still over two hundred Improvement Districts in the province, many providing a significant number of people with essential services such as water.”
Duward explained that the Improvement District model has remained popular for its grassroots structure and community control. He said many Improvement Districts are functioning very well in delivering their services and this has not gone unnoticed by the province, who is considering once again making Improvement Districts eligible for the same funding as municipalities and regional districts. Duward noted he felt “positive” about the future provincial funding possibilities for Improvement Districts.
Most Improvement Districts are responsible for community water systems and have maintained a significant level of local control. However, the Drinking Water Protection Act, first enacted in 2001, have placed a huge amount of responsibility on these districts to meet legislation they cannot possibly do without a substantial amount of additional funding.
Currently the HWD has no treatment system on its water but since the legislation it has made a consistent effort towards compliance. These efforts have not gone unnoticed by the ratepayers, who have paid a much higher fee for their water services for nearly a decade, and by Vancouver Coastal Health, who has remained fairly supportive of the HWD’s pilot point-of-entry UV treatment system.
However, the pilot project has now dragged on from its initial two-year trial to over six years. Several issues surfaced during the pilot project, the most significant being turbidity events which would cause the system to shut down. To alleviate this problem, the HWD dug a well which was put to the test during last December’s rain event. The results were very good, with HWD users seeing no disruption or heavy silt in their water.
Chief Financial Officer Wes Abel gave an overview of the budget and how the board has now decided to structure it. Abel explained that the new format is more accurate model for how the ratepayer dollars are dispersed. The $160 Parcel Tax (formerly $75) is used directly for Waterworks Operations, while the $335 Parcel Tax (formerly $425) goes directly into saving for Water Treatment System Options for the future, whatever those options may be.
“The Waterworks Operations and Fire Protection are now sharing the costs 50/50,” explained Abel. “Fire protection was too low previously, and people will see an increase in their tax notices for this year.”
Abel explained that fire protection is billed out through BC Assessment and the rate is determined by the property’s assessed value. He said nothing has changed in how the billing system works, but the HWD’s increase in their fire protection budget will result in an increase on property tax notices.
Board Chair Chris Matthews, who has served on the board for 18 years, then gave a presentation on an alternative “volunteer model” for the board to reduce costs.
Administration costs currently sit at $50,000 per year. An additional $10-$15,000 that was spent on maintenance costs has since been eliminated as trustees Donald Mikkelson and Matthews are now doing the work on a volunteer basis instead of contracting to Matthews Contracting.
“A suggestion was made that the Board take on more portfolios to alleviate administration costs,” said Matthews. “In doing so we’ve eliminated all of the maintenance costs.”
A near-complete volunteer structure was floated as an idea to drastically reducing costs, but would require a genuine community commitment to pull together and make it work.
“As a community we always have the option to tell the government to get lost and reduce our costs back to the bare minimum of $175,” said Matthews as he delved into the financial costs of operating a “compliant” district. “As a ratepayer I pay the same as you and I don’t want to pay this, I’m tired of it. This idea takes us back several decades, but it is feasible.”
However there were serious concerns raised in relation to volunteer work, particularly for Matthews and Mikkelson taking on maintenance work.
“The Local Government Act clearly states that Improvement District’s must adhere to WorkSafeBC and Employment Standards Act,” pointed out ratepayer Dianne Tuck. “The concern is that volunteers can sue for any injury suffered doing volunteer work, and the district would be liable as we are not a non-profit organization.”
Many ratepayers expressed that they were not resentful of paying the higher rates, but were more concerned with moving forward on choosing a treatment system and addressing the capital projects that needed to be completed.
“I don’t mind paying the fee if I can see some improvements being done,” said ratepayer Ralph Gunderson.
Matthews pointed out that the well project has been successfully completed, and said it makes more sense from a mobilization and financial perspective to complete capital projects all at once, rather than in smaller chunks as was suggested from the floor.
The POE project, which is still undergoing testing, was seriously questioned by Dianne Skelly and Andy Binder on whether or not it was still a viable option and if not, why is still being paid for.
Abel explained that the funds previously and currently being collected will be used for treatment, whether it’s POE or not. Trustee Jeremy Baillie said that the decision whether or not to continue with the POE project is a decision that needs to be made by the ratepayers at a separate meeting.
Former trustee Ken Dunsworth, who spearheaded the bulk of the POE project, confirmed that the project was unsustainable through the current model as it lacks the funding to support it. He stressed that the project demonstrated to the government that the district was being proactive and compliant, but that its hands were essentially tied by their policy of not funding Improvement Districts.
“I don’t know how you move forward, because the government will always have a reaction,” said Dunsworth.
Several options are now before ratepayers and are up for discussion at future meetings. The most notable include the question of accessing funds: does the HWD make a move to join with the CCRD or wait it out in hopes that Improvement Districts will eventually receive equal access to funds?
While many enjoy the autonomy and decision-making authority that comes with being one’s own entity, there is also a palpable “funding fatigue” and urgency to get capital projects addressed, one way or another.
In addition, the question of whether or not to continue with the POE project is front and centre. Both of these topics are expected to be addressed at another public meeting prior to April’s AGM.