Thirteen came to the Lions Hall - a one-time ASK Salt Spring location - to welcome Gary Holman to discuss the soon-to-be adopted 2021 Capital Regional District (CRD) budget. While not as many as usual attended this ASK Salt Spring gathering, the blustery rain may account for some of this. Also, from an optimistic perspective, it is possible that very few Salt Springers have concerns about the proposed CRD budget with its 1% increase over 2020.
After acknowledging living and working in the first nations land of the Coast Salish peoples, Gary walked us, step-by-step through, the proposed budget, including the budget process, COVID impacts, the overall 2021 CRD requisition, major contributions to the 1% increase, revenue sources, debt costs, and a summary of CRD Salt Spring requisition totals broken down by services. He also gave us a list of approved Community Works (gas tax) projects as well as those funded by his Grant-in-Aid funds. (For a copy of this detailed summary, please contact Gary at: email@example.com or pick up a hard copy at the CRD office.)
We learned that, while the budget is developed and given preliminary approval the last week of October, it will not be finalized until March 2020, after all costs/surpluses for various CRD services are calculated and tax assessments have determined actual revenues. This early preliminary approval is done so that CRD can begin using funds at the beginning of the fiscal year in January before actual totals are available.
COVID had a significant impact upon CRD services. In some areas, like our pool, some staff had to be laid off to balance the budget. For these services, like the Library, PARC, and Transit, funds from operating reserves had to be utilized to cover costs.
Concerning our bus system, while our transit service lost significant rider-generated income, due largely to the limit of 6 riders during earlier phases of the pandemic (up to 11 now) as well as the Province-wide fare free directive, BC transit did reduce lease payments for our buses by 50% and also provided some help from their small Salt Spring Island operating reserve. Gary is also hopeful that additional federal and provincial funding that has been promised to BC Transit will help address COVID impacts on our local system.
While services were impacted by COVID, no major capital projects were deferred due to the pandemic. There were only a few minor deferred PARC projects and trail upgrades. Despite the good news that capital projects were able to proceed, contractors had to deal with COVID-related limitations and extra expenses that increased project costs.
This proposed budget of $6.84 million is a 1% increase, estimated to increase costs to “average” households ( homes assessed at. $692,000 in 2020) $10 per household. Some of the reasons for the increase include: core inflation and staff wages/ salaries, Building Inspection (a service shared by the three electoral areas) due to reduction in permit fee revenues, and Emergency Services Operations’ added coordinator time as well as a planned relocation.
Although there is still an overall increase, requisitions in certain areas decreased. For example, our the CRD Hospital requisition decreased as the result of retiring some debt, saving Salt Spring $34,000. Some other CRD services also retired debt or refinanced at low interest rates.
PARC celebrated the retirement of their debt for the Rainbow Road Pool but did not lower its overall requisition, in part to offset reduced fee revenues and also to plan ahead for infrastructure needs by placing these additional funds in capital reserves. Gary supports the need to maintain and replace aging infrastructure faced by a number of services. (PARC also continues to increase the budget for bylaw enforcement.)
Concerning our pool, we also learned that 25%-30% of the pre-COVID budget was covered by user admission revenue. With the pool closed for many months, this income was severely-impacted. Even now, user revenue - for the first pool in BC to open - is significantly decreased due to capacity limitations required by COVID precautions.
While the debt for our liquid waste disposal was retired, increased fees by the hauling contractor more than offset this decrease, resulting in an $8,000 increase for this service.
In addition to other unknowns in the CRD provisional budget, an anticipated increase in the requisition due to infrastructure and equipment upgrades for the CREST emergency communications system must still be finalized.
Some CRD services on SSI (pool, transit, liquid waste) are also funded by fees and charges, in addition to tax requisition. Gary noted that residential recycling on SSI is funded entirely by tipping fees generated by Hartland Landfill Facility and from the provincial BC Recycling Program.
The first question Gary received was from an older, disabled, resident new to Salt Spring. She sought help with distributing her recyclables, noting the high dumpster bins that made it nearly impossible for her to use them. While she was told that staff were wonderful and likely to gladly-help if she requested aid, she was promised follow-up to make sure that staff understands how difficult this process is for her.
Gary was asked about budget allocations to allow us to be better prepared if COVID remains a threat during much of next year. Gary noted that the COVID emergency declaration was a provincial decision, one that left local governments (with the exception Vancouver which has a Charter) with no legal latitude to institute local protocols. Gary indicated that future budget pressures not offset by senior government assistance will have to be addressed in the same way as they are currently being addressed - staff layoffs, service reductions, drawing down operating revenues, and, if no other option, requisition increases.
He was then asked about 2021 expenditures to assist climate actions. Gary replied that the only climate action service in the CRD is a regional service to which SSI contributes as well as receiving support. The major source of funding for initiatives that address climate change and adaptation on SSI is Community Works (or gas tax) funds. SSI’s Area Farm Plan and soon-to-be- released Climate Action Plan were funded with gas tax funds. Some individual projects included: the Root, EV chargers, enhanced energy efficiency at the Core Inn, Artspring LED conversion, and a design study for the troubled Malaview Sewage system. Gary also noted that the Croftonbrook and SSI Commons affordable housing projects have received gas tax funding to help finance alternative water supplies and water-saving measures (Croftonbrook) as well as energy conservation measures (SSI Commons).
Gary also spoke about some of the CRD’s regional climate action initiatives, most notably at Hartland Landfill which will be increasing its current methane-capture rate to sell as Renewable Nature Gas (RNG) to Fortis BC. He cited CRD’s plans for a zero-emission fleet. He also spoke briefly about the many incentive programs currently available for residents to acquire energy-efficient products, like heat pumps and electric vehicles. A key strategy at both the regional and local level will be to connect SSI with these incentive programs.
As 95% of SSI’s liquid waste (i.e., septage and sewage sludge) that we truck to Vancouver Island is water, there is some hope that cost savings can be achieved by reducing the volumes trucked off-island. Concerning our Burgoyne facility, the Liquid Waste Commission has recently learned that, before moving forward toward a local solution, the old effluent pits must be decommissioned. The Commission expects a report from staff this month to outline the next steps to accomplish this.
When asked about progress toward asking voters to approve a Local Community Commission (LCC), Gary shared his continuing support of an LCC and his hopes that timing will work so that, if voters approve, Commissioners - in addition to the CRD Director - can run for election in the fall of 2022. The role of the CRD Director has dramatically-increased since he was last a Director in 2008. Gary believes that a team of commissioners, elected at large, who share decision-making is an appropriate route for the complexities facing Salt Spring. Next steps are to establish a committee to further study this option and present recommendations for the scope and service of a LCC. However, Gary noted that, currently, the top SSI governance priority is the joint CRD-North Salt Spring Water District initiative regarding water management.
One participant spoke of a very rich American who was giving free security cameras, and Gary was asked about such a security camera option. He reminded us that much property in Ganges is privately-owned but did agree that more security cameras could be useful and that more security cameras on public property could be an option. He reminded attendees that voters rejected his proposal to establish a Community Safety Service which would have provided ongoing funding for such security measures as well as additional supports for the inadequately-housed in our community.
Gary was asked if provisions had been made to support the Market manager next summer were COVID still a threat and our inadequately-housed still without a place to congregate comfortably. Gary responded that bylaw enforcement has been increased, but he also reminded us that many of the criminal acts were done by very few folks.
When asked how much we spend for the rental of offices (including Building Inspections, CRD Administrative Offices, and Emergency Operations,) Gary told us that Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) costs us $1,000 a month and this will be increased in 2021 if the planned move of the EOC occurs. He did not have the costs for the other two facilities but can provide this information, if requested.
We learned that while allocation of Community Works funds must adhere to a series of eligibility criteria, the final funding decisions are the CRD Director’s. He and the previous director try to use the funds for the broad public benefit. While area-specific services, such as water and sewage treatment facilities have also received gas tax funding, Gary noted that, in many cases, these area-specific services do benefit the public.
As 1:00 approached, we thanked Gary for the time and energy he spent explaining the CRD budget as well as all the answers he gave to us. Freezing. . . . leaving all the doors open my be smart, but was it ever cold during the blistery, winter-like day. . . we packed up the chairs. Many promised to come back next Friday to try our new venue, the Foxglove Nursery greenhouse, to welcome Mary Richardson, Gary’s Alternate Director and Chair of the SSI Liquid Waste Commission who is working with various stakeholders to establish a local composting facility.
Interested in joining us? Come to the next ASK Salt Spring gathering at our new location, Foxglove Nursery greenhouse this coming Friday, October 30, 2020, from 11 a.m. -1 p.m., to welcome Mary Richardson, Chair of the Liquid Waste Commission and advocate of the Burgoyne Composting project.
All are welcome to ask questions, listen to those of others, and participate in lively conversations.
Social-distancing maintained, chairs provided, and safely-made chocolate chip cookies provided; Bring your favourite beverage, curiosity, and a smile.