Fire hall referendum funding detailed further

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If the referendum to build a new fire hall passes this June, $1 million of the cost of the new building will be supplied from the Capital Regional District (CRD) “gas tax fund.”

A May 16 news release confirmed an agreement in principle had been reached between the CRD and the Salt Spring Island Fire Protection District (SSIFPD) to have $1 million from the CRD’s Community Works Fund — aka federal gas tax monies — go towards the proposed new fire hall. The referendum, to be conducted at the end of June by mail-in ballot, will ask ratepayers if they approve of the department borrowing $9.7 million to build it. 

“This agreement will allow us to reduce the cost for ratepayers of creating a much-needed new fire hall and illustrates how the CRD can work effectively with our fire district in a way that benefits the community,” CRD director for Salt Spring Gary Holman stated.

Fire chief Jamie Holmes added that by working with the CRD to get access to federal funding through the gas tax, the SSIFPD can build a new fire hall “without increasing property taxes.” 

The proposed replacement of Hall #1 in Ganges would be built at 455 Lower Ganges Rd., on land donated by the owners of Brinkworthy Place. The hall has an estimated price tag of $13.7-million, yet the fire board assures its construction will not result in a higher tax requisition. With the district placing $600,000 per year of its annual property tax requisition into reserve funds over the past few years, it has already saved $3 million for the project.

At a May 16 fire board meeting, trustees gave two readings to a bylaw allowing the board to borrow up to $9.7 million with a maximum term of 25 years, to fund the construction should the referendum be successful. 

In a report about the referendum process, the SSIFPD addressed the question of why the price tag is at $13.7 million. The proposed hall, as the centrepiece of the island’s emergency response network, must be built to “exacting post-emergency standards” and has to align with 21 separate codes. The work of the fire department has also become more complex over time, a Q&A document stated, with crews now using specialized equipment for calls ranging from structure fires to medical calls and car accidents. They respond to storms, floods and wildfires, and must be ready for potential earthquakes. The average price of these kinds of buildings in B.C., the Q&A document stated, is $1,300 per square foot. 

The size of the proposed fire hall has decreased 36 per cent from the 2013 proposal, which was rejected by 61 per cent of voters. The SSIFPD noted that the firm S2 Architecture took into account “budget sensitivity and value for . . . residents” as well as needs of the fire service when designing the proposed hall. 

Holmes stated in the May 16 release that Ganges Hall #1 is no longer fit for its purpose. In operation since 1959, the building is in pressing need of an upgrade, according to a 2018 FireWise Consulting report to the fire board. The report stated the current hall could face partial collapse in the case of a significant seismic event, and cited concerns around member health and safety as it relates to contamination potentially brought back from calls or trainings. The hall does not have adequate space to protect self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) each firefighter carries and also doesn’t have a “clearly defined ‘clean’ area within the building,” the report noted.   

At an ASK Salt Spring meeting May 20, both MLA for Saanich North and the Islands Adam Olsen and Holman expressed support for building the new fire hall. 

“The community does have to keep in its mind the reality that the longer this conversation goes, the more expensive it goes,” said Olsen, noting that in his experience as a former Central Saanich councillor, project costs can grow exponentially. The cost of building a new fire hall on Salt Spring has more than doubled from the $6.5-million proposal of 2013.

“And the community is not in a great position when it comes to being able to respond to the emergencies that we’ve seen,” Olsen added, referencing the December 2018 windstorm.

Bruce Cameron, president of the research and strategy firm Return on Insight, who is coordinating the referendum campaign, said it is now in its third phase. The focus is informing the public about the election process. 

Ballots will be mailed out early June, and have to be received at the Ganges fire hall by June 30. Property owners on Salt Spring Island who are 18 years or older, Canadian citizens and residents of B.C. can vote.

In addition to mailing them in, voters will be able to drop their ballots in a secure box at the hall. New property owners who don’t receive a ballot in the mail can register for the election at the fire hall, with details to follow in advertising from the fire department.

Mail-in elections will result in “more enfranchisement,” or more voters, Cameron said. The SSIFPD report referenced North Salt Spring Waterworks District (NSSWD)’s 3.8 per cent turnout in the 2019 in-person trustees’ election and 23.3 per cent rate for the 2020 mail-in ballot election. 

Cameron said the fire hall campaign is keeping in mind the recent NSSWD 2022 trustees election, where 95 ballots were rejected or spoiled. Trustees noted to Cameron that voting information needs to be clearly shared ahead of time and on the ballots themselves.

Board chair Rollie Cook said the campaign had done “a good job so far and we’ve avoided the drama of past campaigns. So let’s continue doing that.”

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