I know there are people who question the "value for money" inherent in these conferences. Someone asked me on FaceBook the other night: "..does (this Convention) provide real benefit to municipalities?"
My response? "...the real benefit to these things is in the networking and the 'face-time' with senior government leaders. We had one-on-one meetings with about half a dozen Provincial Cabinet ministers this week on stuff that's of great importance to the Valley, including the new High School, the cost-share formula for the new RCMP detachment, and several other issues.
Another example is the Chemainus River bridge. That was a $5-million-dollar project which - thanks almost exclusively to lobbying at UBCM and FCM - was paid for entirely by senior levels of gov't! (We were expecting to pay at least a third, which would have involved borrowing and tax hikes.) The payback from that project alone paid for about 20 years of UBCM attendance for every mayor and Council. And there are (and hopefully will be) many more coming down the pipeline."
So herewith, a brief report on this year's Convention.
The biggest single issue on our agenda this year was to raise the profile of the High School project. This project is about much more than "Education" per-sé. That Ministry is obviously the lead one - this is a high school after all - but there are a lot of other implications and partnerships involved in this. The vision for Cowichan Place includes not just a High School, but also a Trades Center - kind of a Vocational School primarily for First Nations students. A version of that Trades Center is already up and running at the old Koksilah Elementary School location and it's been a huge success, with firm job placements for more than 80% of the students who come through that program in disciplines such as welding and carpentry. And the dream is to put a new, dedicated Trades Center on the University Village campus; located between the new High School and VIU. The Center would be academically integrated into both institutions. High School students who, for whatever reason, aren't inclined toward a strictly academic stream of study could move into the Trades Center under a program that is recognized and in some way accredited by VIU.
So it really is a project that has implications across multiple Provincial Ministries. Our first meeting - for obvious reasons - was with Education Minister Mike Bernier. Next up, John Rustad, the Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. We stressed the major First Nations component of the Trade School idea. We also had 15 minutes with the Minister of Advanced Education, Andrew Wilkinson, and Shirley Bond, who's in charge of Jobs and Skills training. If you re-read the paragraph above, you can clearly see how each of these Ministries has a role to play in the advancement of this project.
The reception we received on this file was truly encouraging. Every Minister started out by telling us that there was no money for the project in the immediate 3-year capital plan. But pretty much every single one of them also told us that this could change quite dramatically, and quickly. This is because projects that do move into that 3-year plan have to be "shovel-ready" and, wherever possible, need to be able to demonstrate good buy-in from the community. It seemed somewhat surprising to me, but apparently those two factors ("shovel-readiness" and community buy-in) are not as common as you might think, and often projects that make it into the plan are dropped quite quickly when those items are found to be missing. But in our case, we have them both. In spades. Cowichan Tribes and the School District are strongly supportive, and North Cowichan has just gone through an extensive 3-year exercise to develop the land use for the area; the "University Village Local Area Plan", for which we received what amounts to a "Green Planning Award" at the Convention. (We also referenced the notion that part of the Local Area Plan involved getting traffic off the Highway by extending Festubert and perhaps St. Julian Streets through the current high school property.)
The other factor that we stressed had to do with the bottom line capital cost. The project - when it goes ahead - will involve the eventual demolition of the current Cow High building and the sale of the land on which it's sitting. This is potentially some of the most valuable commercial real estate in the Cowichan Valley. The School District has factored that value into the cost of the new High School, reducing the net cost of putting up the new facility. All in all - and in every single meeting - there was a recognition that we had done our homework and that all the factors needed to make this project go ahead were there. Several Ministers actually inferred that they would like to physically tour the site and have a closer look. We're hoping to put that together sometime in the next few months.
Other meetings were equally fruitful. You may recall that earlier this year, we ended up with some unexpected budget pressure to help fund the operations of our new Visitor Information Center. The Center was built on the premise that the operations would largely be covered by funding from Destinations BC. That organization had historically been funding these Centers based on the traffic they generated; a "performance-based" model. We knew that the number of visits would increase exponentially at the new, more accessible location, and that's exactly what has happened. But this spring, the Province changed the operational funding formula, essentially "freezing" funding at historic levels. Which left the Center (and the Chamber of Commerce which operates it), in a real budgetary pickle. They ended up coming to local government for help with the operations budget, and we acquiesced to that request. We explained the dilemma in our meeting with Shirley Bond, (who's also responsible for the Tourism file), and we received a solid commitment that - because we were the only jurisdiction in the Province that got caught in the middle on this funding rule change - there would be a review of the funding in our specific situation.
Then there was the meeting with Susanne Anton, the Minister of Justice. We're trying to get some clarity on the funding formula for the new RCMP station. North Cowichan is footing the entire capital cost of construction, but the Province will be chipping into that cost through a lease arrangement to house provincially-funded RCMP members who police the City of Duncan and a large slice of the CVRD's "rural areas." What's unclear is exactly what that Provincial contribution will be. The whole question of manpower at the local detachment has been a topic of ongoing discussion for the past several years, and we again made the case that the Province is under-represented in the total staffing at the detachment. We're hoping to get some extra provincially-funded members, or at very least some final clarity on this, before we make the final budgetary commitments on the construction of the new building. I also raised the long-standing issue of "out of jurisdiction" funding for major crime investigations again, and thanked the Minister for the re-write of the Police Act (which had been largely precipitated by our lobbying on this file in previous years.) I'm hoping that we'll have some final clarity on this issue with regards to the specifics in North Cowichan sometime in the upcoming year.
There are those who say that these 15-minute meetings with Cabinet Ministers (commonly and somewhat derisively referred to as "speed dating"), can't really accomplish much. But based on what I experienced again this year, I would respectfully disagree. There is real value in these sessions, especially if they are done consistently, and if our "ask" in each meeting is clearly focused and well-explained.
Other meetings? We got together with the Environment Ministry to continue our push for year-round use of the Chemainus water wells. Responsibility for this file actually rests with the Province, and we continued to make the case that we want to pump from those wells year-round rather than having to use the Banon Creek supply during the summertime. That file is also moving forward, albeit more slowly than we would like. We also had a session with senior staff at BC Hydro on the notion of shifting the public street lights in North Cowichan (which we lease from Hydro), to LED technology. Hydro told us that they're starting a pilot project in Richmond this fall to test various brands and technologies on this, and that they hope to be able to move forward on this file within two years. The savings on this would be substantial. Our CAO, Dave Devana, was at the meeting, and based on some back-of-the-napkin calculations he did there, the pay-back on the capital investment is less than 4 years; after that, we are into a situation where we are saving substantial amounts of money on our annual Hydro bill to power these lights.
In addition to the formal meetings we had above, the Convention also provides opportunities for informal hallway discussions, both with Cabinet Ministers and other delegates. We learn from one another; look at best practices in other municipalities, and come back with ideas that can potentially be implemented here.
And then there's the "Resolutions" sessions. This is where the collective body - more than 12-hundred delegates representing communities from across the Province - debates issues and forwards concerns to senior levels of government. This year, we had a total of 166 resolutions to consider.
North Cowichan led the pack on this. One of our resolutions was deemed to be the most important of the entire convention, and was the first on the list for debate. (Kudos, incidentally, to Councillor Kate Marsh for bringing this one forward to our Council table.) The resolution dealt with infrastructure funding:
ALLOCATION OF NEW BUILDING CANADA FUND - North Cowichan
WHEREAS local governments collect only 8% of total tax revenue in Canada but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure demands which contribute to the upward spiraling of property taxes;
AND WHEREAS the Government of Canada, through the Building Canada Fund, allocates monies to the provinces that are meant to address the increasing infrastructure deficit and demands, but the Province of BC transfers only 40% of these monies to local government:
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that UBCM call on the Province to allocate 60% of the Building Canada Fund directly to local government.
The motion passed unanimously.
I have to say, though, that I found the discussion on some other resolutions to be somewhat discouraging. Last fall's elections represented a noticeable shift in the collective make-up of municipal politicians across the Province. The penchant toward social activism and constant demands in areas that are patently not in our jurisdiction (pipelines, a national anti-poverty strategy, etc), continued to intensify. (For some historic perspective on this, click here to see a recap of a debate at last year's convention in Whistler.) I truly believe these kinds of resolutions dilute the effectiveness of our voice on issues that are within our purview, such as the infrastructure funding resolution above.
I saw a meme on social media a few weeks ago, and I fear that it accurately sums up the reality of some of the thinking that was in evidence on the Resolutions floor at this year's convention.