Three councillors – Casda Thomas, John Buikema and Gladys Atrill – vote against allowing a full waiving of the off-site works for the hospital CT scanner renovation. With three councillors voting for the motion to waive costs, Mayor Taylor Bachrach was the deciding vote, voting against the waiver as well. (Chris Gareau photo)

Smithers gambles CT scanner for ‘sidewalk law’

Despite letter from Northern Health saying delays or cancellation possible, ‘sidewalk law’ applied.

The bylaw that brought Smithers the ‘sidewalk to nowhere’ and forced the Bulkley Valley Child Development Centre (BVCDC) to build a short, dead-end sidewalk over a driveway to a neighbouring residential front yard is now putting the CT scanner project at Bulkley Valley District Hospital at risk.

Northern Health communications officer Eryn Collins said that work to put in the CT scanner has now been put on hold.

She said the financial impact will be reviewed and the board will be advised of any options. Collins added that the community will be notified as the process on deciding what to do next moves ahead.

Bylaw 1800 ‘Subdivision Servicing and Development Standards’ calls for off-site works to be done by any developer that builds or renovates on its property at a construction value over $100,000.

To make way for the CT scanner, an estimated $350,000 of internal renovations to the hospital need to be done.

A motion approve a variance application to waive the off-site works was defeated 4-3, with councillors Frank Wray, Lorne Benson and Greg Brown for, and councillors Casda Thomas, John Buikema and Gladys Atrill against. The tie vote was broken with Mayor Taylor voting against allowing the variance.

Northern Health’s health service administrator for the area Cormac Hikisch presented to council before the vote. He explained that 4,000 patient visits per year to Terrace and Prince George are from the Hazeltons to Burns Lake, which could instead go to Smithers.

A letter from Albert Sommerfeld, Northern Health director of development planning and projects, made clear the consequences:

“The financial burden because of the additional off-site works, which has never been accounted for, may lead to significant delays and possible cancellation of this project.”

Hikisch told council there was a misconception that internal work on the hospital would not apply.

He also said while not yet approved, a $1.2-million emergency room upgrade was in the works. Further down the road, master planning was beginning on building a new hospital in Smithers. Hikisch was clear the knowledge of off-site works requirements would not be forgotten making those budgets.

The CT scanner project was made possible with $1.75 million in donated funds, largely through the Bulkley Valley Health Care and Hospital Foundation and a $1.6-million donation to the foundation by Telkwa’s Fritz Pfeiffer.

With an insistence on applying the bylaw in the name of fairness, and the non-profit BVCDC’s partial off-site work variance used as an example, a variance to the hospital project was still granted. Instead of waiving the full costs, council unanimously approved a second motion that went with a staff recommendation that cuts the amount of work and costs down for the off-site works. The cost is now estimated at $131,000, down from over $500,000.

Read more: Northern Health approves CT Scanner for Smithers

After the vote to approve a variance that partially cuts the work needed to be done, Coun. Wray asked the group around the council table what their thinking was behind not allowing a full waiving of costs to get the project moving, versus allowing a partial waving of costs.

“I appreciate the staff’s rationale, but I’d like the elected officials’ rationale,” said Wray.

All four who voted gave a response:

“For me again, this is really important, and when we’re talking about other organizations that are non-profits that … we did vary some things — or I shouldn’t say we, I wasn’t here — but council did vary some of the requirements and upheld some of the requirements. So fairness being one,” said Coun. Thomas. “And also the fact that the frontage, as was explained by [development services director] Mr. Allen, with Columbia and Eighth Avenue being the most used area versus Tenth Avenue which is not at all, so I understand that rationale.”

Next was Coun. Atrill, who earlier in the discussion also pointed to the importance of accessibility for people with mobility issues who need to get to the hospital, and the need for pipe work brought up in the past.

“It’s a really good and fair question Coun. Wray. I think after hearing some of council speak to the motion that was defeated, I came to the conclusion that where I came in tonight was not likely to be supported. So, I had proposed a proposed amendment here which was to increase the of-site works by a significant amount, and so I guess I am attempting to read the room on the position of council that will allow some of this to go forward

“It was my position when I came here that all the work ought to be completed because I think that is a big connector and I actually think it’s reasonable. I made the decision as I made the motion that that’s not going to fly, perhaps I read that wrong, but that’s what I had on paper when I came in here today: that all works be done. So I responded a little bit to the motion and the conversation that was had just prior to this,” explained Atrill.

Mayor Bachrach said his thoughts were similar. He earlier in the discussion said the North West Regional Hospital District can have taxpayers from across the Northwest between Houston and Haida Gwaii pick up the tab for a portion of the off-site works.

Bachrach also brought up the fact that Hikisch mentioned the first step of “master planning” a new hospital in Smithers was to start soon. That first step comes before funding design, business plan, design, and finally construction. Hikisch pointed to other hospitals as examples on how that process takes years, often over 10.

“Focusing on that intersection on where the hospital actually exists — it’s a very large property and that seems reasonable and proportional. When the rest of that forested area is developed, I think our expectation should be that it’s brought up to municipal standard. In terms of proportionality, developing a $100-million-plus hospital, the cost of those works are really held into context with such a large budget, something that’s achievable,” said Bachrach.

“Like Coun. Atrill, there are aspects that are being waived that I would really like to see. Sidewalks seem to be the first thing that comes off the list because maybe we view them as more of an add on or the icing on the cake, but I think they’re a core part of our infrastructure and we should think of them as such. No less important than things like storm sewers and curb and gutter, and all these other things that allow our community to function. One’s about the movement of water, and ones about the movement of people. And we know from all the work that’s been done around population health that the more people who use their bodies to get around, the less they end up in the hospital. I don’t want to draw too disparate of a connection there, but these are priorities I think our community holds.

“I think this is reasonable and staff have told us that these are the aspects that they feel are more critical to the functioning of the community, and certainly my hope is over the next 15 years that we work with Northern Health and continue down this path so that by the time a new hospital is built, the portion of the property where the old hospital exists is really brought up to the municipal standard over time. I think that’s a conversation I’d like to have with Northern Health … It’s obviously not a perfect process.”

Coun. Buikema was the last to explain his vote against waiving all costs and for allowing some to be waived.

“I think I made my decision partly because of what happened with the CDC, even though I wasn’t a part of that decision. I also have a hard time requiring the hospital to do something on Tenth Avenue; I hardly see that stretch of Tenth Avenue as belonging to the hospital. And I guess for me the decision is, for lack of a better term, a happy medium — maybe it can be called an unhappy medium,” said Buikema.

Northern Health would have two years to build or pay for the off-site works if it still moves ahead with the CT scanner.

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Council still decided to go with a variance that would lessen the cost of off-site works for the hospital, one that would at least delay the CT scanner project but lowers the amount of work needed to be done. The work to be done is marked “staff support.” (Town of Smithers map)

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