The Prince Rupert City Council held its first meeting on the issue of the city’s aging RCMP building and Fire Hall on Monday night. The five months of meetings were envisioned by the council to be a chance for the public to be involved in the process and to ask questions to those making presentations on the issue.
That was the vision, the reality was a little more underwhelming. After having the council chamber’s public gallery filled to capacity by Enbridge pipeline opponents only one week earlier, the group of about a dozen people that showed up on Monday seemed like a small turn-out by comparison.
Not only that, the whole city council wasn’t there either. The mayor and two councillors were missing from the meeting as well. It was explained that they had other obligations and couldn’t make it.
The city also had a phone bank and an email set up to take questions from those watching the meeting at home, but only a handful of questions were sent in.
The night’s presenters were Bill Horne from the city who gave an review of all the city’s pressing infrastructure needs, Inspector Bob Kilberry who described the problems with the current RCMP building, and Fire Chief Dave Mckenzie who described the Fire Hall’s problems.
Many of those who got up from the gallery to ask questions to these men were more concerned about preventing a tax increase than about the condition of the buildings.
Some of the speakers were incredulous of the claims by Inspector Kilberry and Chief McKenizie that their operations had outgrown their current buildings, even though the city’s population continues to fall. It should be noted however, that while it is true that the city’s population has fallen, the recently released census shows the rate at which it is falling has slowed significantly; only 2.5 per cent over the past 4 years.
“As a tax payer of Prince Rupert, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels way, but with a population of only 12,000 people we have one of the highest per capita property tax rates in the whole province,” says resident Janet Crocker.
A small handful of questioners also repeatedly questioned the competence of city staff when it came to the maintenance of the buildings. It got to the point that even the typically calm city manager, Gord Howie, was becoming noticeably annoyed at the insinuations.
When the Fire Chief took the public’s questions, instead of asking any one speaker took the opportunity to call suggest that the purchase of a new fire engine had been a waste of money, and another called for the city to return to a volunteer fire department.
There were also repeated calls for the city not to raise taxes to pay for the project, and if the city does decide to go ahead with the project, many people told the council there should be a referendum on the issue.
Thats not an all-together unreasonable demand. The community charter actually requires the council get public approval of a bylaw to let them borrow money to pay for a project this large. They can do that by a referendum or publishing their decision and wait to see if 10 per cent of the city’s population registers their opposition to the decision – in which case it would have to go to a referendum anyway.
“I think this issue should go to the public: do we need to spend all this money? We’re receding in population, come on now. Our taxes are going right haywire, I just don’t understand how we can keep on affording doing what we’re doing,” says resident James Kirk, himself a former auxiliary firefighter.
Valid criticisms or not, the council’s intention was for the meeting was to have it be about why the council was considering the issue and how the condition of the emergency buildings stacked-up when compared to other of the city’s many, many infrastructure needs. Discussions on how the project might be funded or whether the city will actually go through with the project at all are months away.
The commenting during public question time got so bad that Councillor Joy Thorkelson had to ask people to curb their criticisms.
“I really would ask the public to be a little bit politer to our staff. They’re not here to be defensive, they’re here to answer questions. Council will not make a decision on anything until September; that’s what the schedule is. So we have a long time to have a discussion on what we think,” said Thorkelson to the gallery.
That being said, Thorkelson told the public that she understands their concerns about the cost of the project causing a tax increase to cover the millions of dollars it would cost.
“Everybody knows there’s no money in this town. Everybody knows that, we know that. That’s why we’re trying to hold these meetings: so we can all ask questions and come to reasoned decisions and reasoned conclusions.”
Despite vocal public concerns over how the project would be funded, the meeting did manage to make some headway in the discussion on how the RCMP and the Fire Rescue’s building needs compare with the rest of the city’s infrastructure to-do list.
Both Inspector Kilberry and Chief McKenizie described in great detail on all of many, many problems with both buildings – complete with photo slide shows to better illustrate them for public (these will be made available on the city’s website).
The RCMP building suffers from a lack of space both and in the office and more critically in the holding cells. The city has a number of security design flaws, chronic lack of space, lack of storage and structural problems which Kilberry says make the building inadequate for modern policing. The condition of the Fire Hall is perhaps worse, with a garage that is not big enough for modern equipment, numerous structural problems, a bad heating system, aging utilities, and heath and safety issues.
The city’s public works manager, Bill Horne, outlined all the other infrastructure problems the city has to deal with including: replacing bridges, civic centre repairs, sewer maintenance road repairs, a storm drain system, parks maintenance, a upgraded sewage treatment facility, a new water treatment facility, landfill expansion and more.
The project that causes Horne the most concern is the needed repairs to the city’s water supply.
The city currently gets its water out of Broadwater Lake from the Shawatlans Dam which is getting close to being a century old. The water is treated and piped through underwater pipes into town. The dam’s latest inspection rated it’s condition as being “fair” and the pipes also badly need to be replaced.
While no firm cost estimates are available, Horne thinks that to replace the pipes would cost somewhere in the range of $6-million and $5-million to repair the dam.
When asked if he thought that the city would be better off spending its money on the water system first instead of an emergency building, Horne said that it was for council to decide.