Incorporation: A Municipal Engineer's Perspective

This article is written for those who are currently undecided relative to the upcoming incorporation referendum, and are interested in reading a Municipal Engineer's perspective before making a decision. I am not one who writes articles to local papers; however, after having received the Positively No flyer in the mail I thought it prudent to provide my observations. My background is in municipal engineering consulting with most of my 30 year career providing planning and engineering services to small cities, towns, villages, rural counties and municipal districts in western Canada. More specifically I provided guidance to Councils relative to existing infrastructure rehabilitation and new infrastructure spending. In helping these communities attain their goals, it became apparent that working with both the Provincial and Federal levels of governments was a necessity. What was most noticeable to me was that the closer the level of government was to the people the more efficient and accountable that government was. With constant downloading of legislated requirements from the Federal government to the Provinces and from the Provinces to the local municipalities there was an even greater need to listen to the community relative to their wants and needs and become even more efficient. The local Council mantra was to govern by taking into account all of the community's priorities using common sense and providing fiscal responsibility, while minimizing bureaucracy.

Since I have lived on Salt Spring it is evident to me that our "local" form of government is inefficient, not accountable and not workable. Each Board, Association and entity moves forward with their particular agenda/priority independent of the others' plans or priorities. The concept of separate budgets for different infrastructure requirements does not adequately address the "overall" priorities of our island. Let me explain. Typically a municipality would have in hand, or complete, an "Infrastructure Master Plan" or IMP. This document would review all the wants and needs of the community (water, sewer, storm water management, solid waste management, roads, parks, fire protection, community facilities (library, pool, community hall, municipal offices, police station, fire halls,etc.). It reviews the condition of existing infrastructure and puts dollar values for upgrading, extending or replacing the same over a 30 year period. The deliverable of the exercise is a dynamic plan outlining community needs for the short, (less than 5 yr), medium, (5 to 15yr) and long term (15 to 30 yr) including both capital and operating costs. An IMP is a dynamic living document that requires constant updates to ensure that the priorities within the community have not changed. The plan incorporates a financial analysis including potential Provincial and Federal funding and their effect on affordability. Only when these wants and needs are established can priorities be set for the entire community. Is a new fire truck more important than upgrading the Ganges water distribution system to provide adequate fire flows? Is a community room at the pool more important than repairing a road failure on Isabella Point road? Is low cost housing more important than the Ganges Boardwalk upgrading? These are the things an IMP lays out. One can argue that they are all important and should all be implemented; however, the reality is there is only so much money annually available and prioritization is a must. The current form of government makes the process of ranking community priorities virtually impossible.

Relative to development there are those that believe that there should not be any further development on Salt Spring. I find that unrealistic, given legislated rights of property owners. Development can however be limited and properly managed if "Developers pay for Development". The No campaign indicates, and I quote: "incorporation leads to over-development and Higher Taxation", "Without new development, a municipality couldn't pay its bills without big tax increases."

The logic being that in order to keep taxes at their current rates we need development to occur which creates more residential, commercial and/or industrial lots which increases the tax revenue to the community, thus postponing or eliminating the need for increased municipal taxes. I can say that yes this has happened when short sighted Councils believe that development is the alternative to tax increases or a solution to paying for long overdue capital projects. Educated Councils on the other hand understand this is not the case. With development comes more population for which the community must provide additional services which requires increased staff levels and additional infrastructure to operate and maintain. The net gain in taxation is typically zero or worse. The educated Council transfers the "true" cost of any development onto the Developer. Let me explain. Typically when a Developer comes to the local Council a "Development Agreement" is executed between the Municipality and the Developer. Within the agreement the Developer is required to pay for "Off Site Levies". Off Site Levies is a fancy term for the Developer paying for their fair share of existing and proposed infrastructure within the community... the library, the new proposed fire hall or the new water treatment plant they connect to as examples. In other words the Developer would pay its proportionate share of the capacity of water, sewer, roads, fire protection, community facilities, etc. This levy, to the specific development, is typically calculated as part of the IMP or can be completed as a separate Off Site Levy report. Developers will complain that they can't afford these offsite levy payments since it would make their development uneconomic. The educated Council responds with "we can't and won't subsidize development with taxpayer funds". When I left consulting, Off Site levies ranged between $100,000 and $150,000 per acre of development for larger towns and smaller cities. These costs vary tremendously from community to community and between rural and urban jurisdictions, depending upon the services provided by the Community. Each community must complete its own assessment to determine the true per acre cost of development. What this process does is ensure that the Developer, and ultimately the potential lot purchaser, pays for ALL development costs incurred. By implementing this form of Off Site Levy system, development will be sustainable and not become a tax burden to current and future taxpayers. The closest I have seen of this type of system being implemented on this island was when the Fire Board suggested that perhaps a south island CRD approved development should pay for a portion of the new fire truck purchase. Development does NOT equate to higher taxes, if educated Councils ensure Developers pay for the true cost of their development.

The No campaign indicates, and I quote: "Many SSI roads are poorly maintained and near the end of their lives.

SSI has 265km of roads compared to Victoria's 260km. The costs of our extensive road network would be too much for our small rural community".The fact that we have virtually the same length of roads is about the only thing common between SSI and Victoria road infrastructure. Any further analysis is an apples to oranges comparison. We have a "rural" road network. Victoria has an "urban" road network. Where SSI taxpayers mostly pay for crack filing, drainage improvements, culvert replacements, gravelling, grading, chip sealing, etc, Victoria taxpayers mostly pay for concrete curb and gutter, sidewalks, medians, traffic signalization, storm sewers, catch basins, storm manholes, street lighting, overpasses, pedestrian bridges and storm water detention facilities. If a true comparison were to be made, I would suggest using a similar sized "rural" community.

The No campaign indicates, and I quote: "SSI roads are poorly maintained"

In driving the roads around Salt Spring it becomes quite evident that maintenance of existing road infrastructure is lacking. Relatively simple tasks such as line painting and crack filling are limited or non- existent on many roads. When no funds are allocated within the budget to complete basic tasks such as line painting (Ex:Fulford-Ganges road two years ago) there is something significantly wrong with the Ministry of Transportation's (MOT) budgetary process. In my experience a local municipality, utilizing municipal employees and equipment, are far more efficient at maintaining road infrastructure versus third party maintenance contractors. I question the value we receive from MOT's annual $2 million capital and maintenance budget. I believe if the $2 million were administered locally, by a local Council, more could be accomplished with the same amount of funds.
The No campaign indicates that "Many SSI roads are...near the end of their lives."

Based on the roads study, which was completed in conjunction with the incorporation study, 72% of all Salt Spring roads were determined to be either in "very good" or "good" condition. Stating that Salt Spring roads are near the end of their lives is a gross exaggeration. Do some roads on Salt Spring need upgrading, asphalt overlays, culvert replacement or total reconstruction? Yes, but this is not any different than any other municipality who has a continuous list of roadwork requirements. It's the reality of maintaining any infrastructure. There will always be the next project.

The No campaign indicates, and I quote: "Urban Systems incorporation report grossly underestimated the true costs, especially roads, and thus your property taxes".

When one reads this statement, one questions why would Urban Systems do this? They have no agenda other than to present the best available information to residents in order that they may make an informed decision relative to incorporation. Are the road costs provided by Urban Systems 100% correct? Probably not. Can you poke holes in the information presented? Absolutely, but it is the best information available and representative of the existing road infrastructure. I would rather make an informed decision based on a report that is 98% accurate, prepared by a third party engineering firm that does not have an agenda, versus watching/listening to someone with limited credibility and has a clear agenda to stop incorporation. To state that the road costs are "Grossly underestimated" is simply false.

The No campaign indicates, and I quote: "Capital repairs, rehabilitation and widening of our roads to meet Ministry Standards amount to over $50 million....."

The key to this statement is "to Ministry Standards". The advantage of incorporation is it allows the municipality to set its own road standards and priorities, not MOT. Of the $50 million flagged for road work, the consultant estimated that 58% or $29 million would be used for road widening. MOT has Provincial standards that they must adhere to. A local Municipal Council, upon receiving recommendations from transportation experts, will have several options to consider. As an example Council can decide to widen all roads as suggested in the report, not widen the roads and simply grandfather the roads "as is", reduce the speed limit in all or some sections of road to ensure safety, or perhaps widen critical sections of road such as at intersections and road curves. The assessment may include a cost/benefit analysis of each option ensuring that value is obtained for the dollars spent. The option selected by Council would be made locally based on practicality, affordability and road safety, not based on generic Provincial standards. Excess funds, not spent on road widening, could then be transferred to areas deemed of higher priority within the community, detailed within the IMP.

I can go on but I believe that our form of government is not workable in its current structure and never will be if we truly want to prioritize and implement ALL of our community's wants and needs. For governments to be accountable and representative they need to be local...it's that simple. The Mayor and six Councillors will be your child's teacher, your doctor, your local artisan, your grocery store clerk, your local farmer, your plumber, and yes perhaps even a property developer. Each of the six Councillors and Mayor have an opportunity to present their perspective to the entire Council, and the community at large, prior to any vote on any issue which comes before it. More importantly your Mayor and Councillors are your neighbours who live and work within your community, accountable to the people who live on this island. The work which Wayne McIntyre, our current and only CRD Board member, has attempted to complete over the years is admirable; however, when you are only one vote compared to the other 23 off island votes, any progress on any file is painfully slow or non-existent with the Burgoyne Bay Sewage Disposal Project and the Ganges Boardwalk as just two examples.

I hope that this article has helped the undecided in their deliberations. No matter your decision, above all, please take the time to vote on September 9th. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Peter Brouwer
Retired Municipal Engineer

August 14, 2017 10:53 AM