Editorial: Fourth time lucky for fire hall referendum?

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It’s official — or almost so.

Property owners in the Salt Spring Fire Protection District will be asked for approval to
borrow funds for a new main fire hall outside of the Ganges core by early summer.

As many people have stated when the topic has arisen in the past year, the fire department cannot afford to have a “no” vote in a borrowing referendum. Deficiencies with the present downtown fire hall built in 1959 were first highlighted in a big way in 2005, and the problems related to its structural integrity, size and location have only gotten worse since then.

Past fire boards have faced a critical public when trying to replace the hall. Fire trustees of 2013 read the community mood incorrectly when their proposal to borrow $5 million for a $6.5-million 18,300-square-foot building was rejected by 61 per cent of voters. In 2008, a referendum to borrow $540,000 for a parcel of land on Upper Ganges Road was defeated by 59 per cent of voters. Just one year earlier, a proposal to borrow up to $5 million for the purchase of land and building of a new hall on Kings Lane was rejected when a controversial counter-petition process was used and the board decided to not proceed to referendum.

Signs are clear that the current administration is more ready than its predecessors to achieve a positive outcome. At a sparsely attended March 25 ASK Salt Spring session, fire department representatives articulated a strong case not only for needing a new hall but the $13.7-million cost. The building size has dropped to 11,500 square feet and incorporates use of steel for the apparatus bays, as the public has requested. As well, surveys have recently been used to gauge public opinion about the facility and property owners’ willingness to pay for it.

The best news is that the proposal, which requires an estimated $9.7 million in borrowing, will not result in a property tax increase if the referendum passes. Property taxes for fire protection took successive leaps in recent years as fire trustees established a reserve fund to help pay for a new fire hall. The existing $600,000 per year amount would simply be maintained.

A look back at Driftwood coverage of the 2013 campaign shows that only 20 people showed up to four official open houses about that project. Similar events for 2022 will be announced soon. Now is the time to ask questions and understand the issues so that history does not repeat itself when it comes to replacing the Ganges fire hall.

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