North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring. (File photo)

North Cowichan mayor answers questions about new RCMP detachment

The current building went up in 1980, when there were 30 people working there.

By Al Siebring

We’re about halfway through the period for the Alternative Approval Process (AAP) for the new headquarters building that’s being proposed for the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment. During that time, there have been some questions that keep being raised, so it might be good to answer the most frequently-asked ones here. (And thanks to the Citizen for this opportunity).

First of all, some people are wondering whether we even need this new facility. Simply put, the answer is yes. The current building went up in 1980, when there were 30 people working there. Today, it’s home to a workforce of 85, including 62 officers and 23 support staff. The current building has major problems, including mould, rats, and ongoing flooding almost every spring and fall. The cell block is more than 10 years out of date in terms of federal standards to prevent self-harm, and that’s a huge liability. Just upgrading the cells to current standards would cost more than a million dollars.

There are repeated questions about why we wouldn’t just do a renovation on an existing structure like the old Rona store. Council looked at that building; at one point, we actually considered putting in an offer to buy it. Then we talked to the RCMP about what it would take to convert that structure. We concluded there were considerable risks to containing costs if we proceeded with such a large purchase (i.e. $10 million) and then overhauled the entire building to meet RCMP standards for security and functionality. The total costs could very well have been higher than the building we’re proposing today.

RELATED: FAQs answered about proposed new $48-million RCMP detachment

There’s also a perception that “only” North Cowichan taxpayers are footing the bill for this; that taxpayers in Duncan and the CVRD are getting off scot-free. But the reality is that the people who live outside of North Cowichan have an extra line on their property tax notices that doesn’t show up on a North Cowichan notice. That line is for “policing.” Those tax dollars go to the province, where they end up in a large pool of money to pay for — among other things — the provincial components of “blended detachments” like ours.

But the biggest question goes to the size and expense of the building. Why is it so large and expensive? These things are fundamentally dictated by RCMP standards, over which we have no control. They get to determine the design based on their criteria for security and other concerns. And we are required, per our contract with the RCMP, to provide them with something that’s constructed to their standards. If we don’t build it, that contract says they can simply do it themselves, and send us the invoice. And a project managed out of Ottawa would be a lot more expensive than one we manage ourselves.

We seriously thought about doing something smaller. That would have involved “going it alone”; building a detachment just for North Cowichan, and telling the province to build their own structure for the provincial side of the blended detachment. Doing it that way would have created serious operational problems, because it would physically split up a single detachment, under a single commander, into two separate locations, but we looked at it as a cost-saving measure.

However, it turned out that a “North Cowichan” standalone building would have cost more than $20 million dollars. So instead, we opted to ask the province to move more services (Highway Patrol, Forensic Identification, etc.), into what has become an “integrated” detachment. The province will thus occupy 60 per cent of the space. So North Cowichan has to borrow the entire amount to put up the building, but the province will reimburse us 60 per cent of that total cost, based on their use of the space. This means we need authorization to borrow $48 million, but North Cowichan taxpayers are only paying back 40 per cent of that, or around $19 million. The rest is covered by ongoing lease payments from the province.

And finally, there’s the question of why we are using the Alternative Approval Process rather than a referendum. (Just for clarity, the AAP is a process whereby 10 per cent of voters in the municipality have to register their objections to the borrowing in order to either cancel the project or force a referendum.)

The first reason is cost. A referendum, particularly if we want to do “messaging” around it, would cost around $60,000. That includes set up and staffing for polling booths (just like a municipal election), with statutory requirements around advance polls with extra days of staffing, etc. But the AAP cost is in the range of $5,000 dollars.

We’ve also been accused of trying to “sneak” this project past the voters. Nothing could be further from the truth. We sent — via Canada Post — an information brochure on this to every household in the municipality, with a form they could use to express their objection if they chose to do so.

This is the first time in the history of the municipality that we’ve engaged in this level of transparency with these elector response forms. If we were trying to be less than upfront about this, we could have done the bare legal minimum, which is the publication of a couple of newspaper ads. Instead, we went with the mail-out, and even gave people the option — again, for the first time in our history — of submitting their Elector Response Forms by fax or email. So it’s way beyond a stretch to say we’re “hiding” this; the fact is that we’ve far exceeded the minimum legal requirements in terms of transparency.

If, after reading this, you’re still opposed to the project, you can download an Elector Response Form from the North Cowichan website, or pick one up at the front counter. The deadline to get the response forms back to us is 4 p.m., on July 14.

In addition to Elector Response Forms, you can find more information on the AAP and the proposed new building, as well FAQs and regular updates at www.northcowichan.ca/RCMP.

Al Siebring is the mayor of the Municipality of North Cowichan

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