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Incorporation: Countdown

    Editorial & Opinions, Governance & Politics    September 5, 2017

On September 9 Islanders will be faced with two drastically different visions for local governance. The choice we are being offered, however, was not “made on Salt Spring.” It was carefully crafted by a provincial government guided by its own interests — downloading massive costs onto a fledgling municipality.

Take roads. (The province would love it if we did.) According to the Incorporation Study Report, we will need $35,300,000 for rehabilitation and reconstruction. The province has offered us $6,000,000, spread over five years. That’s almost $30,000,000 a new municipality will have to raise from increased property taxes, increased density and development (preferably commercial), or user fees.

On Bowen Island, with roads similar to ours but subject to less wear and tear, the cost of road repairs and maintenance has left them little money for much of anything else. Their long pre-incorporation wish list of services and programs? It’s had to be deferred.

Or take local control. In their 2012 report, the provincial government’s Expert Panel on Business and Taxation found that “municipal costs have been growing faster than the combined rate of inflation and population increase.” Why? “In many cases, these costs are driven by decisions that are outside the direct control of a municipality and require some form of collaborative action with other governments.” Those same governments that eagerly downloaded costs in the first place.

The Islands Trust was created to protect the Gulf Islands from this taxation/development treadmill on which most municipalities are trapped. Its visionary separation of land use planning from service provision means we can continue to make decisions on zoning, densities and development free from the need to find money for incorporation’s newly downloaded, expensive services like roads and policing.

Yet incorporation will drastically weaken the Trust on Salt Spring. Our Local Trust Committee would be dissolved. We would have no Trust planners trained in the Trust’s unique approach to land-use planning. We would have no Trust office. The Trust’s capacity and visibility would be greatly diminished.

Unlike today, two municipal councilors would be elected as dual councilors/trustees, a minority on the seven-person council. The other five councilors could range from indifferent to the Trust to actively hostile; they would still form the majority. And unlike today, an island municipality need only “have regard” for the Trust preserve and protect mandate This is a far cry from the “legally bound” the “Yes” side would like us to believe. Even when the Trust rejects an Official Community Plan bylaw, a municipal council can appeal to the Province for the final decision.

The amount of power these four councilors would hold is something we’ve never experienced on Salt Spring. The checks and balances we enjoy under our current system stem in part from decentralization of governance functions. Many more islanders are currently involved in decision making through our various boards and commissions than would be in a municipality. Consolidating power in the hands of a few with accountability to the people only once every four years represents not an extension of democracy but rather a reduction in citizen power.

In many cases, for example, a municipal council can borrow money without any voter input. Sidney just borrowed $10,000,000 for a new fire hall without any voter approval. This is impossible under our present system — all such decisions must be made by referendum and approved by the majority of voters.

Over the years, our Local Trust Committee has rejected proposals for townhouses on our farmland, condos in our watersheds, and resort hotels on the shores of our lakes. Four councilors on one cash-strapped council — faced with mounting bills for roads, policing, water, sewage, fire protection, and a new, fully staffed municipal hall — could reverse that. We could vote them out at the end of their term, but the damage would already be done.

Positively No has been regularly accused of “fearmongering.” The facts, however, show we have good reason to fear having a municipality, with its massive financial burdens, imposed on our unique rural island. Incorporation puts at risk the visionary governance that has helped make our federation of islands unique. Even more alarming, it is irreversible. Incorporation would force us down a development-oriented path while leaving us no way of ever turning back.

Vote “NO” vote on September 9 to preserve and protect our island heritage and treasured way of life. Help create a sustainable future for the island we love, one where islanders — all of us — have the final say.

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