Recently I talked about incorporation with Nerys Poole, a Bowen Island municipal councillor and trustee from 2008 to 2011 and with Gayle Ferguson, the contract minute taker for the Bowen municipality from 2000 to 2013. At the top of Nerys’s warnings for SS islanders is the loss of the Islands Trust preserve and protect mandate. On the top of Gayle’s list is the huge cost of municipal staffing. Both speak of the “nightmare of roads”.
I got the sense of an island that had almost completely abandoned the Islands Trust. An Island which could afford little other than to maintain it’s roads. An island where most of the goals identified at the time of the referendum, have not materialized due to lack of money.
I asked Nerys what she would say to Salt Springers about our upcoming referendum. Here’s some of what she said. “If you believe in the Islands Trust Act preserve and protect mandate you do not want to become a municipality because you lose the overall protective umbrella.” She explained that, after 17 years, most people on Bowen have completely forgotten that Bowen is still within the Islands Trust. The idea of preservation and protection is seldom heard.
Years ago a sign when one drove off the ferry announced that Bowen was an island in the Islands Trust area. That was removed during the years of the “Developer Council” (2011-2014 when all the councillors were pro-development). In spite of requests to re-introduce the sign, that has not happened because it’s not something the business community seems to care about.
She said that because the IslandsTrust isn’t on the radar people feel that they are not getting their money’s worth from financial contributions to the Trust, they no longer see the overall value of a federation of islands.
Another example she gave of the invisibility of the Trust, during the recent logging issue on Bowen, is that not one of the letters to the editor or the editor of the local newspaper mentions anywhere that Bowen is an island in the Trust.
While two members of the Council continue to be elected asTrustees, reports from trustees are seldom reported in the local paper. The Trustees present reports at Council meetings but the general population remains unaware of what they do. During the “Developer Council” one of the 2 Trustees was the Island’s long time primary developer. He abandoned his position as trustee and as councillor, a few months before a crucial decision on development needed to be made, claiming conflict with his own business interests.
In her opinion the Islands Trust has become very cautious of interfering in Bowen affairs, deferring always to the elected municipal council and rarely stepping in with an opinion about issues that may arise on Bowen.
The philosophy of governance and of preserving and protecting Bowen has suffered from the lack of active membership in the Islands Trust. Much more pressure for development has resulted.
Nerys said a very high percentage of budget goes into roads. The money provided by the Province only lasted for 3 or 4 years. The municipality still hasn’t been able to afford a community centre or to address the other issues that were the reason Bowen people voted to incorporate. Nor have they been able to afford a municipal hall and so continue to pay $100,000 a year in rent.
Gayle talked about the “nightmare of roads”. The cost projected by the incorporation study report at least doubled because of what they found once they dug up the surface. She estimated the roads budget took up a good 1/3 to 1/2 of the budget so there was little money left to do any of the things they thought they would do.
Nerys said grants for key municipal infrastructure are hard to come by. Grants for cultural buildings are available. Thus, the current council has decided to incorporate municipal offices in the plans for a community centre and performing arts centre in order to benefit from possible cultural grants while creating a municipal hall at the same time. They soon will be asking the community to approve a $3 million loan to build a fire hall for which grants are not available.
Gayle warns that the cost to the taxpayer of experienced staff wasn’t considered in the incorporation reports but it played a very big role because it was difficult to find experienced staff with knowledge of Bowen island and difficult to keep what staff they did hire. Turn over was a major problem.
These were major staff positions like public works manager, heads of department, superintendents and the CAO. “We went through 3 or 4 planners and the 3rd one was paid to leave and replaced with an inexperienced person who didn’t live on Bowen. Over her 13 years there were 3 Directors of Finance.
“It is important to understand that the only job of council is to make policy. Everything else – to do with development, public roads, water, etc. is prepared by staff. The councillors only role is to say yes or no. If staff are not experienced with how things are done in government, it is problematic and, combined with councillor inexperience, very expensive to the taxpayer.
“People think that having a municipal council will make things go faster. While it may be that the development process works faster, which is why developers favour incorporation, most other things don’t get attended to or take a very long time.” People voted for incorporation to solve the difficulties of their village being the ferry loading zone, similar to Fulford Harbour. “There was study after study, one council would be in favour and the next one would not.” It is now 17 years later and little has changed in Snug Cove.
Another of Gayle’s fears for Salt Spring is the likelihood of diminishing our amazing culture of volunteerism. Living here now, she sees how much has been achieved by volunteers and believes that there are two very real dangers. One is that volunteers become discouraged both by an unsupportive bureaucracy and decisions made for political not community reasons. The other is that people develop expectations that the municipality will somehow do the work that up to now has been done for free without increasing taxes.
I think these warnings are important. Bowen is a smaller island than Salt Spring and maybe more isolated from the other islands in trust but it is the best comparison we have.
(The writer lived on Bowen Island from 1991 to 2006, Bowen incorporated in 2000)