Watching costs, improving services the watchword for Area F

In my opinion: Environment and transit also front-and-centre in Cowichan Lake South

This has been my fifth year serving the good people of Electoral Area F, and it has certainly been a busy one.

CVRD Chairman Rob Hutchins tasked me with a heavy load of responsibilities. These included chairman of the transit committee, Municipal Finance Authority representative, and member of the Cowichan Watershed Board, as well as the regular committees a committed director attends, in service of the constituents we serve.

I am particularly focused on the financial goings-on at the CVRD. The first three months each year is consumed by the details of the 30-odd budgets in Electoral Area F.

I am happy to report I was able to keep the increase in property taxes in Area F to the smallest percentage increase of all the CVRD electoral areas for the 2013 fiscal year.

Despite most residents being willing to pay for services they receive locally, the significant increases in taxes were for services more “regional” in nature (on the other side of Hill 60). It feels like Area F taxpayers are being asked to subsidize programs and services outside our electoral area.

A well-written policy report was presented at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in September. The report analyzed B.C.’s local government taxing regimes and reviewed other revenue opportunities that may bring more fairness to the burden of property owners. I will keep you posted.

After the 2013 budget was adopted last March, information became available that allowed me to do some analysis of senior exempt (non union management) salary increases.

Many of you may have read articles I wrote this past year criticizing the process of managers receiving more than 10% increases. The CVRD board had knowledge of the 2.5% cost of living increase we approved, yet directors weren’t privy to the“band” increases the chief administrator has sole authority to award.

The CVRD board wasn’t even aware they we being handed out in this time of restraint. That is why I raised a stink, even calling for an investigation by the new municipal auditor.

Some very smart and very experienced directors presented a motion to have a “study” done and for staff to “report back” in July of 2014, while freezing senior manager salaries for 2014. This motion was so expertly crafted that no sane director could possibly vote against it.

It was clear to me the intent was to create the appearance we were doing something, yet remove the entire subject from view and eliminate any discussion for almost eight whole months. Fans of the old British TV comedy show Yes Minister would be impressed.

Many of you will have read stories about paving the road to Nitinaht. I want to be very clear that the discussions with the province are very preliminary and would involve a three-stage process.

The province would have to acquire the road from the current owners, a private forest company. It would have to commit to maintain the road as a public roadway. Funding to hard surface the roadway would need to be found. The tight funding environment imposed by both the federal and provincial governments makes this a fairly long-term proposition.

There have been several meetings with hiking groups to discuss a strategy to gain greater access to the back country. Again, the vast majority of these destinations are located on lands owned by forest companies who are the beneficiaries of the historic E&N land grant.

Much of my energy this past year has been committed to protecting the amazing Cowichan Watershed. I have attended a chinook workshop, a Cowichan Riparian Areas workshop, Cowichan Watershed Board meetings, Cowichan Stewardship Roundtable monthly meetings, as well as several of our own Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society meetings.

We have amazingly bright and committed volunteers and environmental professionals working to not only protect this area, but to recover and enhance what’s been lost.

I want everyone to know about the good work done by the CVRD Transit Committee and staff this year. The Town of Ladysmith is now a full partner in Cowichan Valley conventional transit service and now residents from all over the CVRD have connectivity to almost every other community.

There has also been a Para Transit (Flex-Transit) study underway in the Cowichan Lake and South Cowichan sub-regions. It is very difficult to provide conventional fixed-route transit service to rural, less densely populated areas in a cost effective manner. The study is searching for flexible solutions to improve service and reduce taxpayer costs. Stay tuned for transit news in 2014.

I feel the need to emphasize another important initiative in our region- the 10% shift to buy local. The idea is to commit to spend 10% of your household spending buying locally grown or produced product and to buy from local businesses.

When we purchase a product on the internet, 100% of your money leaves the region. When you spend money in big box stores or foreign chain stores, only a small percentage stays in our area in the form of wages. If we buy local products from local businesses, more than 85% of you money re-circulates in the region and keeps local farmers and businesses strong and thriving. 

Cowichan Aquatic Centre funding has been an important issue in 2013, and while we haven’t yet found the right formula to bring Electoral areas F and I and the Town of Lake Cowichan into the single-tier fee structure, I am working on ways to achieve fairness for families and pool users, as well as taxpayers in Area F.

I must report on the great work the CVRD has done on the environmental front.

In addition to watershed initiatives, the CVRD is a signatory to the province’s Climate Action Charter. Working with BC Hydro, the CVRD has dramatically reduced its energy consumption, in addition to reducing the size of its carbon footprint.

The CVRD is a partner in a very successful Bio-Diesel facility at Bings Creek, and has brought curbside collection back in-house with the new totes and automated collection trucks. Despite a few hiccups when the new program rolled out, recent feedback has been mostly very positive, especially the part about the lower cost.

While 2013 has been a very busy year serving the residents of Area F, with budget season beginning in January, you can expect me to be busy watching the bottom line and fighting the good fight for residents and taxpayers in 2014.

 

 

Ian Morrison is CVRD Director for Electoral Area F – Cowichan Lake South/ Skutz Falls