Mayor’s Report: State of the Town of Lake Cowichan

Forrest's lengthy, detailed August update on the town

This council and I, as Mayor, are close to completing the third year of our collective second term in municipal office. While we have had challenges, we have

been able to overcome some of those with fiscally responsible decisions. The financial health of the Town, as of the end of 2013 was the best it has ever been

since its incorporation as a municipality in 1944 and that health is not expected to change for 2014.

We take great pride in the local infrastructure improvements that we have accomplished in both terms but particularly those in the second three-year term. These improvements have

been completed entirely without incurring any debt except for a short-term loan that was necessary to finance just a portion of the fire rescue truck purchase. The financial health of theTown, I can assure you, is excellent.

We want to ensure that our infrastructure is sustainable. With that in mind, we continue to build on reserves and surpluses so that debt can be avoided. We have made tremendous improvements to our infrastructure and have done so through partnerships with the Provincial and Federal governments, Insurance Corporation of BC, Island Coastal Economic Trust(ICET) and other agencies to accomplish the many capital projects.

The Revitalization Study undertaken in 2005 has provided the framework for the improvements undertaken during our terms in office. The improvements at Riverside Road over 2006 and 2007, with the medians, boulevards and plantings have been the template used for other road upgrades including those for Darnell Drive and South Shore Road.

When discussions were first began in 2009 with the Ministry of Transportation and Highways on ways and means of improving the main thoroughfare through Town, the Ministry was

not at first keen on major improvements other than regular maintenance and the patching and paving of portions of that road. However at our persistence the Ministry was convinced of the need for the major upgrades that have now been undertaken. At our insistence, the Ministry also agreed on the construction of the roundabout so long as the Town contributed its share on the project. The Town had to make adjustments to its capital budget in order to undertake those improvements that were ancillary to the main roadwork – the roundabout, the medians, boulevards and pedestrian safety features. ICBC assisted the Town with grants to reduce our share of the expenditures. The Town’s upgrades were completed on a timely basis

so that the Ministry could proceed with their scheduled timelines. The partnerships with the Province and ICBC has proved to be invaluable. No debt was incurred by the Town to bring the project to completion. We are grateful to the Province, BC Hydro and ICBC for assisting with the road and pedestrian access improvements and the tree planting which have helped immensely in beautifying the downtown.

Infrastructure improvements and beautification of our Town are prerequisites if Lake Cowichan is to be attractive to those who want to make and call Lake Cowichan home. It has also helped instill confidence in small businesses that can see potential for growth in the Town. We have been able to attract new businesses to Town, and others have been exploring the investment potential in Lake Cowichan. As we are a largely urban residential community Lake Cowichan is not ideally suited for large-scale industrial business ventures. Upgrades to make Lake Cowichan an attractive community are prudent if businesses are to be encouraged to locate in the Cowichan Lake area. We need to have faith in the viability and longevity of our community.

With the completion of the new library facilities by Vancouver Island Regional Library and the addition of the town square, we are well on our way to completing the required infrastructure upgrades for the downtown business core. It’s now up to the business community or developers to take advantage of the potential the improvements have made possible.

Without a healthy and liveable downtown, the Town of Lake Cowichan cannot be sustained. We took advantage of opportunities presented by the Ministry of Transportation and Highways (which expended $2.8 million) and ICBC, for the traffic improvements, BC Hydro for the trees and ICET for the contribution towards the newly constructed town square. The results are indeed impressive.

As I reported in the 2012 year-end report, downtown revitalization is key to a vibrant and thriving community. Other communities recognize this and have done their part to improve and revitalize their business districts.

I would like to thank the local business owners who were involved with the planning of the town square through their participation and valuable input at meetings held at the municipal hall. Their letters of support were very instrumental in the Town’s success in receiving a grant from ICET for this project. ICET was created by the Government of BC in 2006 to support economic development initiatives on central and northern Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. We are grateful for the ICET contribution and for recognizing the potential this Town Square will provide our community.

The attraction of new businesses to Lake Cowichan has been a slow process given the difficult economic times and yet we have had success. The downtown improvements are serving as a catalyst for follow-up private sector investment that could create far more significant local and regional employment impacts. There is already evidence that private sector investment is responding to the downtown improvements as new businesses have recently moved into the community. Two new restaurants, a clothing store, a pre-fab cabinetry company and new medical services have now located in town.

While more needs to occur, there is already evidence that private sector investment is responding to the infrastructure improvements as confidence is instilled by the successful completion of the road improvements, the floating dock, new public washroom amenities at Saywell Park and the Town Square. Enhancing the vitality of the downtown area can also encourage small office-based businesses and/or mixed-use developments with a residential component to move in, further expanding local demand for shops and services and supporting additional investment.

This past August long week-end was the busiest it has ever been for our local businesses. This is a sign of good things to come. We have worked hard to make our downtown a better and healthier environment for residents, businesses and visitors.

We have been fortunate to have a number of our capital projects financed by grants. In my first year as Mayor, the Town received approvals for phase 1 of the water metering program in the amount of $400,000 (the previous Council first initiated the process at a committee meeting in November, 2008 and in the first month in office we approved the application for the metering grant) which was followed in 2011 by a second grant approval of $400,000 for water metering through the Towns for Tomorrow program. In addition, grants of $50,000 through the Trees for Tomorrow program and Job Creation Partnership (JCP) funding exceeding $80,000 were approved during our first year.

In terms of infrastructure development, we are determined to make it sustainable and have leveraged other sources of grant funding. There is a growing infrastructure deficit in every municipality in Canada while health concerns are causing senior governments to mandate additional water and sewer upgrades. In 2013 we were fortunate to receive approvals of $1.35 million from the Gas Tax Funds to complete phase 1 of the sewer system upgrades. An additional $172,450 was approved at the same time for developing a rain water management strategy. We are grateful to both the federal and provincial governments for providing us with the required funding for the important infrastructure projects. To complete the required upgrades to the water and sewer utility systems Council wants to minimize borrowing. To that end we have implemented water and sewer parcel taxes as we continue to seek additional grant funding from senior governments and other agencies.

As alluded to earlier, grants have been very helpful in bringing projects to fruition with others that are in the planning stages. In the first 5 years of our time in office we have been able to secure approvals for grants that total close to $3 million and these do not include grants that we routinely receive on an annual basis. I would like to acknowledge the dedication of our senior management staff, who with the help of the employees, are helping us accomplish our goals and objectives.

I would be remiss if I do not make special mention of the citizens and volunteers who through their dedication and hard work, and for no remuneration, make this town what it is – great. We appreciate the countless hours dedicated by our citizens and volunteers, in activities ranging from the river clean-up, riparian rehabilitation, litter pick-up to helping others less fortunate than ourselves or for serving countless hours on our committees and the non-profit organizations. Our young citizens – the leaders of tomorrow – have also been involved in activities for the good of our community. The Lake Cowichan grad class of 2013, as one example, has contributed and supported projects at Saywell Park, as in the restoration of the riparian habitat and in providing a financial donation towards the cost of the new dock. The recent river clean-up by over a 100 volunteers is a case of good work by our residents. The donations by the many businesses and individuals for food and refreshments and prizes were much appreciated. A simple thank you does not seem sufficient. Our citizens have recently stepped up to the challenge of dealing with drought conditions this summer and have co-operated in implementing Stage 3 of the water restrictions. The local businesses have often stepped up to help for worthy causes. The good you do is immeasurable. To all of you we owe a debt of gratitude and heartfelt thanks.

Council now needs to focus on phased improvements to local roads, sidewalks and water, sewer and storm sewer systems and make Lake Cowichan the best small town in BC. We completed road upgrades to Darnell Road in 2011, and will continue to prioritize capital projects which is always a challenge.

Parcel taxes are not a new phenomenon for Lake Cowichan. Water and sewer parcel taxes of $65 and $130 per year were in place until 2001 to finance long-term debt payments on water and sewer projects. Prior to 2000 the Town had to rely on debt financing for capital items, large and small. The Town’s financial situation at the time was indeed less than enviable.

The Town began to take stock of its financial situation and implemented fiscal responsibility with the establishment of appropriate reserve funds. Starting in 2001 a Municipal Building

Reserve Fund and other reserve funds were established to fund future capital projects. As a result this council inherited a financially viable municipality at the end of 2008. However, we also inherited the single largest debt of $1.56 million which was the capital lease balance outstanding on the new fire hall that had been completed in 2004 at a cost of almost $1.77 million. This still remains the single largest debt today.

By the end of 2011 the financial situation was far better than at the end of 2008 and that much better at the end of 2013 despite the major expenditures on streetscape improvements.

Reserve funds and the surplus continue to have very healthy balances. Council adopted a policy in 2010 that requires the maintenance of a minimum balance of accumulated surplus which the Town has been more than successful in maintaining. We strive to undertake capital expenditures on a pay-as-you go basis, and we have been successful so far in this regard – the phased improvements on our main road is a prime example of this approach.

As always, Council is transparent, open and accountable. The public are invited to review any of the previously audited statements – the 2013 statements are on our web-site with comparative figures for 2012. Whether through town hall meetings or council or committee meetings, the public can and should be privy to all of the plans that have been accomplished or are underway, or you may call me to discuss matters that affect us all. We welcome and encourage your participation in local governance. Our citizens should be involved in providing input in making Lake Cowichan a progressive, vibrant, healthy and sustainable community.