The Gulf Islands Secondary School gym hosted a large crowd of islanders Wednesday night, with community members seeking the final pieces of information needed to commit to a vote either for or against Salt Spring’s incorporation as a municipality.
Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott guided the debate process, which saw three panel members each for the yes and no sides outline their general positions and provide answers to a set of 14 pre-determined questions. Abbott proved to be an entertaining and balanced facilitator, while his job was eased by a well-behaved and respectful audience.
Ken Marr, Michael McAllister and David Wood made the case for the need to improve local governance and urged islanders to accept the provincial transition offer and vote yes.
“This is an opportunity. Let’s grasp it, and as the community that we are, see what we can make of it,” Wood said in his closing statement.
On the no side, Greg Clayton, Brenda Guiled and Gary Holman argued against ending the island’s rural governance system in which land-use planning is provided by the Islands Trust and service delivery decisions are separated. They said improvements could be made without incorporating.
“There’s tools in the great workshop of local government that we haven’t used yet, and we can sharpen them up, we can bring them out,” Guiled said.
In response to the first question about the reason to become an island municipality or not, Marr said there were a great many to do so. The local businessman grew up on Salt Spring and graduated from GISS, as will his two children. Local budgeting decisions, more democratic procedures, a simpler and more understandable form of government, direct access to government grants, and the ability to better enforce bylaws were just some of the reasons Marr gave.
Problems with local governance in structures such as North Salt Spring Waterworks District and the Salt Spring Fire Protection District was another key point for Marr.
“We need a system that brings fire, water, housing, land planning, building inspection, and all our other local agencies under one umbrella, and the only way to do it is with a municipality,” Marr said.
McAllister belongs to the law firm that represents the Bowen Island Municipality. His view is that the municipal structure is the best type of governance available. He spoke of a “silo effect” due to Salt Spring’s many different commissions and improvement districts applying taxes to their individual mandates without an overall strategic plan, which a municipality is required to submit every five years.
Clayton, who served on the Salt Spring Incorporation Study Committee, said smaller government doesn’t necessarily mean more representative government. As a member of the finance sector who moved to Salt Spring to grow food and a family, he argued the provincial government has an interest in downloading risks and responsibilities. He also observed the province has not released the draft Letters Patent for a new municipality, effectively asking islanders to vote on a contract in which the terms have not been supplied.
In regard to the impact on taxation, Holman, who has served both as Capital Regional District director for Salt Spring and MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, said the main difference between tax increases on Bowen and Salt Spring is that Salt Spring taxpayers have had more direct control over their taxes since every major increase or new service goes to referendum.
Holman said municipalities can borrow money and create new services without taxpayer approval and have the ability to shift the tax burden between property classes.
“For example, on Bowen, one of the first things they did as a municipality was effectively shift taxes from the commercial sector to residential — so be careful what you wish for there,” Holman said.
The role of the Islands Trust and worry that budget pressures would spur development under incorporation formed a common theme of discussion.
McAllister said Bowen Island has a protocol agreement with the Islands Trust in addition to the wording in its Letters Patent that makes land-use decisions work well.
“Incorporation doesn’t have to lead to development. If you don’t went development, just make sure you have four of your best friends on council,” McAllister said, adding an island municipality wouldn’t be “the Wild West.”
Guiled has posited there are big discrepancies between the estimated roads costs in Urban Systems’ incorporation study report, and the figures supplied from the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure through freedom of information requests. Upcoming road surface repair and maintenance costs have been estimated at $33.5 million, while the provincial restructuring offer is for $19.8 million with $12.8 million specified for roads.
McAllister said in response that a municipality would decide how much it wanted to put into its roads. Wood added that the one of the few “knowns” is that under incorporation, the province will repave Fulford-Ganges Road, adding a 1.2-metre shoulder, and Walker’s Hook Road would be remediated.
“Roads lead lives of their own. They age out, they tell you when they need fixing. And when they fall into the sea and when the pavement has failed and there are safety issues, the roads dictate what we have to pay. And they will,” Guiled said.
Along with increased police costs of at least $900,000 per year, which the no side also believes has been underestimated, the no side feels tax rates could increase dramatically. Without having the Islands Trust mandate and planners to oversee zoning decisions, they say the temptation would be to finance budgets through increasing the tax base and development.
The impact of farming and local culture were also discussed. Disagreements between the two sides linger around how much decision making is made off-island and the grant money that Salt Spring has received for infrastructure and affordable housing. In the end, the no side reaffirmed that for them, the threat to Salt Spring’s unique community and environment was too strong to gamble with.
“All it takes is four people on a bad council. It’s a huge risk,” Clayton said, adding. “I’m an advocate for change — but not this kind of change.”
The yes side countered that Islands Trust rules would still be in place, and the real question for voters if whether they want to govern themselves, or by governed by people in Victoria and Nanaimo.
“In order to make visionary decisions for the well-being of our entire island, we need to abandon the silo form of governance and take this opportunity to elect a local council to prioritize our needs for the benefit of us all,” Marr said.