Results of firehall AAP can’t be trusted
On July 17 the Cowichan Bay Improvement District/Cowichan Bay Volunteer Fire Rescue Department announced that property owners have approved borrowing $16 million to rebuild the Cowichan Bay fire hall. This based on the results of a recent Alternate Approval Process conducted June 2-July 15.
AAPs require that 10 per cent or more of the eligible electors must sign and submit response forms in opposition to the proposed initiative to require the local government to obtain assent of the electors in order to proceed. Like negative option billing if you say nothing — whether you agree, are indifferent or just didn’t know about it — you approve the expense. According to the CBID 448 objection forms were required in order to decline this initiative. Four hundred twenty-seven objections were received; 26 of these were rejected by the CBID/CBVFRD (no reason provided), leaving 401 accepted responses. Forty-seven short of declining the initiative. The AAP is an inappropriate process for an initiative that will cost at least $16 million resulting in an average increase in property taxes of over $354 per year for every property owner effected (4,477). This would be a significant burden to taxpayers at any time, even more so as we are experiencing near record high inflation and facing an economic recession.
According to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, when issues may be controversial or require a significant financial contribution by taxpayers, as this one does, a more appropriate process is a referendum. The CBID had the option of using a referendum for this initiative but instead chose the AAP.
The citizen communication and engagement strategy for this major initiative was insufficient. The CBID board hired a consulting firm to develop a communication strategy. The firm claimed it included videos posted on the fire department website, news releases in the Citizen, road signs, posters and “an extensive household mailout”. However, I certainly never received a letter. I learned about it from a neighbour who was working hard to spread the word. As I spoke with others in the area I learned that many didn’t even know they were in the CBVFRD catchment area, let alone the details of this initiative and that they would have to pay dearly for it. It seems most of the details were shared by word of mouth by concerned citizens.
To file an objection citizens had to: learn about it; find the objection form by navigating to the corner of the CBID/CBVFR website or visiting the fire hall; complete and sign it; and send it in, all in the middle of summer. Those who didn’t do so were essentially counted as approving the increase in taxes.
Another flaw in this process was the way the AAP was administered. The AAP objection forms were received, counted and the results communicated by the Cowichan Bay Fire Department which is highly biased in favour of this initiative. The CBID told me they engaged “two independent returning officers with experience in local government to manage the process”; however, in my view the entire process ought to have been overseen and administered by a neutral third entity, similar to the role Elections Canada plays during referendums. Given the very close results of this process the results cannot be trusted.
The CBID admit that during the AAP process citizen input could be summarized as: dislike for the AAP process; opposition to spending/cost too high; obtain grant funding and explore consolidation; eliminate any non-essential components of the new hall like community space; and better inform residents. Hardly a ringing endorsement of this project. In light of these issues my hope is that the CBID/CBVFR pause and rethink this project and scale it down considerably. If they think citizens are opposed to spending so much now, wait until they start receiving annual tax increases of hundreds of dollars.