Volunteers providing expertise ‘we could not buy’

The work of volunteers in the Cowichan Valley saves local governments huge amounts of money, though Cowichan Valley Regional District chairman Rob Hutchins prefers to think of their efforts as "helping build our community."

"We’re just so fortunate that people look around their community and say ‘what can I do to help out? What can I do to help make it better?’" Hutchins said.

"We’re actually getting things that we could not buy," agreed North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure.

This is the type of thing encouraged by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in their Beggar’s Checklist of things municipalities can do to save money.

From the Kinsmen to the Eagles and the Kiwanis, the Lions Club to the Rotary Club, and many other service organizations the contributions of volunteers to all sectors of the regional district are huge, said Hutchins.

Sportsmen clubs regularly go out into the woods and clean up the garbage dumped there.

The Valley boasts 17 volunteer fire departments with an average 20-30 members each.

Four of them are in North Cowichan, said Lefebure, and one is particularly dear to his heart. He spent 11 years with the Chemainus volunteer fire department and credits the experience with launching his career into politics.

"It actually introduced me to understanding public service. I’m not sure I would have taken any next step if I hadn’t joined the fire hall," he said.

Lefebure acknowledges that firefighters receive a small amount of compensation.

"But if we had to go professional, we would have a massive increase in our taxes," he said.

There are 200 community parks in the area that are conceived of, added to and maintained by a host of volunteers alongside the CVRD’s parks staff.

"Whether it’s from Saltair to Cobble Hill it’s the volunteers that come out on the weekend to help add to the park, add amenities to the park, build trails," Hutchins said.

Lefebure pointed out the savings that a modest amount of funding for the volunteer group Communities in Bloom brings to the municipality.

"Our Parks and Rec director Ernie Mansueti comes forward every year and says ‘Communities in Bloom are asking for $13,000. This is some of the best money we

could possibly spend’," he said.

Volunteers populate advisory committees and commissions for everything from parks to planning.

Lefebure noted the invaluable work done recently by the Forest Advisory Committee, which boasts three registered professional foresters.

"They just did an in-depth audit of our forestry operations, for free," he said, so that the municipality would be able to answer a number of questions that had come from the public about the efficiency and productivity of the municipal forests.

The CVRD’s Emergency Planning has trained numerous volunteers who are ready to gear up in the event of a catastrophe.

"A whole host of people step forward," Hutchins said.

He said he hasn’t put a dollar amount on the work done by volunteers in the CVRD, but it is doubtless in the millions.

In spite of the boundless enthusiasm Cowichan folks have shown for making their community a better place through volunteering, there are some areas that require the attention of professionals.

Hutchins cited things like engineering services and preparing financial plans, as well as oversight of some of the programs such as emergency planning that are then populated by volunteers.

Things that require technical reports and involve licence and safety issues, Hutchins said, require a certain level of expertise that come with a paid professional.

Lefebure pointed out, however, that more and more the municipality is able to have volunteers contribute significantly to the policy side of even these types of services, making recommendations on everything from finance to land use planning.

This is due to the fact that more and more people are retiring to the Cowichan Valley, bringing their professional backgrounds and expertise with them and wanting to contribute to the community.

"We get absolutely phenomenal input from these people," Lefebure said.