Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Facts on Recreation & Culture ...

As a local reader of this blog you will no doubt be aware of the recent decision by the Village of Warfield to withdraw from their most recently expired recreation services agreement and longstanding library contract with the City of Trail. I can imagine that you were surprised to hear of this drastic move that seemed to come out of nowhere. Well, I can tell you that you were not the only ones that were surprised. The negotiating committee for the City of Trail was equally perplexed when we learned of this decision. For several months leading up to the announcement of this decision, the City was engaged in discussions on several options for the renewal of recreation and culture agreements with Warfield. Several options were explored with the shared view that a worst case scenario (failing any new solutions) would be a short to mid-term renewal of the existing arrangements, which by the way were not "two tiered" in any way.

The existing agreement on recreation provided complete equality of access to all  City of Trail  facilities for all Warfield residents and Trail residents alike. This model is predicated on a fixed annual fee $74,446,00 +2% inflation. This payment supports operational costs only (no capital) and includes all recreational facilities within the municipal boundary of the City of Trail. It also gives Warfield credit for their contribution of the outdoor pool facility and takes into account the Village's ability to pay. In fact, the 74K only represents a cost of $42 /per capita. The City of Trail is paying $424/per capita to absorb the 3.29M deficit on the total cost of operating the recreation services provided. This is not only a fair method of cost attribution for partner municipalities, it's a bargain. It is also based on a fundamental principle that underlies the viability of all large scale government owned and operated facilities. Every party to the agreement must pay at least their fair share of the cost to operate a facility in order to participate in the benefits of the service being provided. This is how hospitals, libraries, roads, parks, schools and every other shared government service must operate in order to remain viable. To suggest that a "user pay system" is somehow more "fair" is ludicrous. If we chose to pursue this route on the other services noted above, they simply would not exist. It would be financially impossible to create, maintain and operate such facilities on an unpredictable and highly variable cost recovery model.

If all of this "user pay" and "requests for numbers" talk sounds familiar, it is because this current impasse is almost an instant replay of what took place with regard to the BV P.A.R.T.S. group and their recent withdrawal from their now expired recreation agreement with the City of Trail. After much post withdrawal talk in the public realm about the concern over costs and getting "value for the dollar", it was discovered in a letter to the editor of the Trail Daily Times- that one of the motivations for the review was the belief that the COT was not being a good neighbour with respect to their current efforts to expand the boundary of the City into Area A. This begs the question, if the impasse isn't about money (because that is being mitigated) and boundary expansion is the underlying issue, then what is actually being lost and by whom,if  boundary expansion proceeds?

The COT has unfairly been portrayed as a rich, power hungry government that is seeking to annex bordering communities by aggressive means. As if the COT is somehow the municipal equivalent of the Red Army. (EDITORS NOTE : 03-28-2014 - 6:20 PM: See Trail Daily Times March 28th edition for this accusation in letters to the editor . It was only a matter of time before this reference would be used.)  This is of course, a patently false narrative that is meant to take the public eye off of the real issues at hand. The simple truth is that the City of Trail responded to the wishes of a group of business owners in Area A who felt like their voices were being ignored. They came to the COT seeking relief, tax certainty and the hope for more progressive policies that would allow their enterprises to expand and flourish. Better services means greater opportunities for economic expansion. It means the possibility of more jobs for residents of the entire area, not just residents of Trail. If successful, the inclusion of this land into the COT would see almost 500K more tax dollars returned from the coffers of the provincial government to our area. This money is over and above all of the money our region is currently receiving from the provincial government for the taxes paid by the industrial users in the proposed expansion area. The current mitigation proposal would see the unincorporated Area A residents receive up to $532,000.00/year to compensate for transferred tax revenues after the boundary expansion.

 Now, fast forward to the conversation taking place this week regarding recreation services and the library agreement with the Village of Warfield. This glaring uncertainty of future revenues now jeopardizes a planned 6 Million dollar Library & Museum Complex that would again ,benefit all area residents. Instead, Warfield residents will be asked to pay first for a $75.00 library card and have their privileges of book borrowing restricted and reading program at Webster School cancelled. This is what happens when a private enterprise concept is applied to a public interest service.

User pay, pay-as-you-go systems simply do not work in the case of public facilities. Predictable, long term commitments to funding of these types of services is the only way they can be afforded and sustained. The borrowing of 6 Million dollars is not something any municipality does on a maybe or without the consent of their electors, (as it should be). We will be asking our residents to approve the borrowing of 6 Million dollars for the construction of the new Library & Museum Complex (regional asset) in a referendum on November 15th, 2014 ,in conjunction with the province wide municipal election. If this is not what it means to be a good neighbor, somebody please tell me what that looks like.

Instead of being recognized for the regional contributions and sacrifices that are regularly made by the residents of Trail, we again find ourselves wearing the highly charged and politicized label of "Bully". Politicians from days gone by, current pols and aspiring ones will (and have) cast baseless accusations against our community and our residents. Couched in community pride, these accusations are nothing more than "tax class envy".I would like to believe it is only the much talked about industrial tax base that Trail enjoys which draws the ire of others and not something more primitive.While Trail does have the benefit of a large industrial tax payer, so do all of the communities who receive regional services through the RDKB. Trail also lives with the many challenges of having a smelter in the middle of our community. The City and Teck have now come up with a creative way to mitigate some of those challenges through an agreement that supports economic development that benefits all of our communities, while providing long term tax certainty for this region's largest employer. It also bares mentioning that all of Teck's workers, regardless of where they live, will benefit from the long term employment stability provided by the tax agreement the COT is committing to for the next 20 years. If you add in the spin off jobs that exist in our region to support Teck's Trail Operations and the financial support those jobs provide to all of our communities in the Lower Columbia, the net benefit to our entire region is not only immense, but critical in these uncertain economic times.

So,the next time you read a letter to the editor blaming Trail for all of the regional political challenges, you should ask yourself two questions; first, Does this person actually understand what has taken place and why? Or is this just "community pride" gone too far? Lastly, when you see the COT seeking to invest their taxpayer dollars into infrastructure that benefits the entire region, you could also ask yourself; Are these the actions of a bully, or a benefactor?

In conclusion, what I can say to summarize the solution is this; The sooner everyone accepts their collective roles in the sustaining of our region's high level of recreational and cultural services, the sooner we can move past the parochialism and pettiness that currently divides us. The simple fact is, everyone must pay their fair share (not just Trail), if we are to have the services and facilities that our residents have come to expect. No community will make it on their own in this game and to think otherwise is a fool's errand. The future of recreation and culture in our area does not rest in the worn out slogans and platitudes of a bygone era. It can only come to fruition through a new way of thinking and a commitment from partner municipalities to focus on solutions that are equitable for all parties, in principle and in practice.

I encourage all readers to speak to your political representatives and share your views These are your tax dollars and shared services. You should have a say in what level of service those monies purchase and how.


Kevin Jolly

City of Trail

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Art & Science of Budgeting ...

 It’s that time of year again where the City prepares it’s Budget for the year ahead along with an update to the five year plan. To say that the numbers of capital projects on the horizon are “significant” would be an understatement. The projects are not only numerous, they are needed. A city that ignores the upgrading of its infrastructure and planning for future growth does so at its own peril. This is the proverbial kicking of the can down the road for other future governments to address. At the municipal level, raising taxes is the primary way (in most cases the only way) that municipalities can raise additional revenues to fund those upgrades which are the sole responsibility of local government. Think projects like sewers, sidewalks, non-provincial or non-federal roads and of course utility bridges  At the small community level, airports, libraries and museums are no exception to this mounting list of priorities. These projects are never inexpensive and with increasing safety and environmental regulations – their construction costs continue to rise. Doing projects today will almost always be less expensive overall than doing them in the future. Coupled with increasing demands for public services, many downloaded from higher levels of government the decisions as to what gets funded become even more critical to the sustainability of small municipalities. The simple fact is that if the City does not do them – they won’t get done. 

There are of course other creative ways of raising revenues and reducing expenses. Unique partnerships such as the agreement the City of Trail is pursuing with Teck which will bring $225,000.00 a year for 20 years (indexed for inflation) into the community for economic development. Projects like the replacement of our street lights to LED over the next ten years will save the City hundreds of thousands in operating costs over their lifetime. Grants, private investment partnerships and sales of renewable assets can also add to the available pool of resources. While these initiatives are creative and forward looking, the gains only amount to a small portion of the City’s annual operating budget and the funding sources are typically not constant. Strategic partnerships with other municipalities to share the costs of major services can also bring additional revenue. These agreements are increasingly more difficult to maintain, given the increasing costs of services and the leveraged affect this has on smaller governments with lesser tax bases.This brings us back to the subject of property taxes, which are the primary way your City’s operations are funded.

A mandate of renewal and growth is not inexpensive but the long term cost of stagnation is far greater, not only in monetary terms but it can also be measured in increased risk, dashed hopes of our citizenry and eroding community pride. Those tough decisions of course belong to the politicians and each year they get more difficult. Great ideas are inexpensive, funding them is not. What is required however is the political will to make tough decisions even when it is both unpopular and necessary to maintain a progressive and balanced approach. That is why I will be supporting and seeking a property tax increase this year of 3.25%. While I am by no means a believer in wanton tax and spend policies that cannot be linked to strategic objectives, I do believe wholeheartedly in community investment that can demonstrably add value to the lives of our citizens. I also believe this is a reasonable figure that allows for a growth and renewal focused agenda, while still keeping our rates in line with other area municipalities and still lower than most governments  our size across the province. The City of Trail must adopt its budget plan by May 15th. Once Council has finished our budget deliberations a public presentation will be made to advise the community of our plans. If you cannot attend the presentation, I encourage all citizens (at your convenience) to take the time to review the budget summary that will be posted on our recently renewed website after the presentation. Look at the priorities we have identified and let us know what you think. I look forward to your feedback in the weeks and months ahead.


Kevin Jolly