Port Edward volunteer firefighters responded to a fire on Highway 16 on July 19, 2018. With only one truck, the fire crew can only handle one fire at a time. (Northern View file)

Prince Rupert fire crews won’t help Port Edward after negotiations fail

Mutual Aid Agreement renewal between B.C. local governments has stalled amid tax sharing disputes

In the summer of 2015 when a brush fire tore through six hectares in Port Edward before it was finally put out, both volunteer fire fighters from the district and the Prince Rupert Fire Department were called to the scene.

Today, if a fire ripped through Port Edward there would be no support from professional Prince Rupert fire crews.

A recurrent rift between the District of Port Edward and the City of Prince Rupert over a tax sharing agreement has stalled negotiations over their emergency Mutual Aid Agreement.

“We tried to talk to them, and they said they won’t renew it,” said Bob Payette, chief administrative officer for Port Edward.

“If our [volunteer] guys can’t handle the size of the incident, or there’s a second incident, they won’t come out and help.”

To boot, the district’s long-serving fire chief Shawn Pettitt, who has volunteered since 1988, has stepped down. An interim fire chief, Jason Giesbrecht has replaced him to lead the approximately 10 volunteer firefighters.

READ MORE: Twenty-five year service award for Port Edward fire chief

Prince Rupert has a professional fire department with a fire chief, deputy chief, four shift captains and 14 full-time firefighters.

The fire department’s jurisdiction covers Kaien Island and Watson Island. Beyond that, fire crews need authorization to ensure they have workers’ compensation so that if something goes awry while on duty, they’re covered. As it stands now, with no Mutual Aid Agreement in place, they wouldn’t be covered.

“In February, the District of Port Edward unfortunately allowed their Mutual Aid Agreement with Prince Rupert to lapse. Without a Mutual Aid Agreement in place, the Prince Rupert Fire Department legally cannot attend a fire in Port Edward without taking on personal liability for injury to victims of fire, or themselves,” said Prince Rupert Mayor Lee Brain.

“Weeks ago, we formally invited Port Edward to discuss a Mutual Aid Agreement, and have requested that they provide a written offer, which has not yet been received. We absolutely do not wish to be in a position where we cannot provide aid to neighbours in their time of need.”

READ MORE: Port Edward councillors raise Vopak emergency preparedness concerns

Tax sharing dispute

The disagreements between neighbours stem from a 1980 tax sharing agreement to share industrial property tax from Ridley Island.

In 1984, the original agreement was amended to reflect what it is today. Port Edward receives 17 per cent of gross taxes levied from Ridley Island. Last year they received approximately $900,000 in taxes. In 2019, with new revenues on Ridley Island, the district will receive $1.25 million, equating to approximately $2,730 per resident.

Every five years, the district and the city get together to review the agreement — which does not guarantee it will be amended. This time the city is pushing to “renegotiate” the sharing agreement toward a per-capita arrangement. If the city has it their way, the district, with a population of approximately 500 people, would receive $278,000 in taxes, equating to $595 per resident.

But the district continues to push back, stating that the current agreement is “fair and equitable.”

In Dec. 2017, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing asked a consultant to assist in finding a long-term solution for the North Coast neighbours. Julian Paine released his report in March 2018, in which he wrote: “The Ridley Island tax sharing agreement (RITSA) between Prince Rupert and Port Edward is the longest running arrangement of its kind in the province.”

The report found that the conflict is centred around the financing and management of joint services, and while both local governments agree this should be discussed, “the issues around RITSA have proven too divisive to allow this to occur.”

Tensions over shared services

A shared service disagreement involving the city landfill prompted the province to step in a couple years ago.

After Port Edward completed its sewage treatment plant, it needed to dispose the sludge somewhere, and with the landfill nearing capacity the city said it needed investments to expand. In 2015, the city imposed a non-resident tax on dumping fees at the Prince Rupert landfill.

An arrangement was made for 2016 and 2017, when the district gave $500,000 in total payments to the city to cover the disposal of its sludge, and to help pay for other core infrastructure developments. The non-resident tax was lifted.

READ MORE: Prince Rupert, Port Edward reach two-year tax agreement on Ridley Island

But the dispute didn’t end there.

The city is once again requesting the province step in to facilitate a “fair and binding resolution.”

At the March 12 District of Port Edward meeting, Mayor Knut Bjorndal said he met with Mayor Brain and city manager Bob Long, and they offered another $100,000 toward shared services.

“We were flatly turned down. They’re seeking a minimum of $500,000 a year in tax sharing and there will be no negotiations until we come up with that number and agree to binding arbitration by the province. They’re not going to enter into another Mutual Aid Agreement without the shared services payments or the 911 agreement. We have their letter on file and our legal counsel will be looking at that,” Bjorndal said.

READ MORE: All candidates agree, Ridley Island tax agreement stays

In response, Mayor Brain said those comments were misleading and “part of an established pattern of bad faith and unprofessional negotiations.”

The debate over shared services may continue at the North Coast Regional District meeting on April 26 in Masset. A facilitator is being brought in to help establish regional goals for the next four years, but there will be a shared services component, according to Mayor Bjorndal.

“They won’t need a facilitator for that, they’ll need a referee for a boxing match, in my opinion … We have to be darn careful as Port Ed not to enter into any of these things and then have two shared services, one for the regional district and the one Prince Rupert’s proposed,” he said at the council meeting.

In the past few years there have been on and off discussions regarding shared services through the regional district, said Mayor Brain. There is no set agreement on what services would be included, or the allocation models.

READ MORE: Rupert mayor calls for public debate on Ridley Island Tax Share

“At this time, the city is only exploring a shared service agreement with the District of Port Edward, as well as a renegotiation of the Ridley Island Tax Sharing Agreement,” he said.

Payette said of course they want to help pay for services, but the district doesn’t need to review the Ridley Island tax sharing agreement for another four years.

To report a typo, email: editor@thenorthernview.com.

Shannon Lough | Editor
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