February 2013 edition

Turning the City around before it sinks 

Bravo Leslie on your January Editor’s Letter about the City of Victoria’s budget. Your argument that the staff complement and the excessive wages are the main problem to tackle in order to bring fiscal sanity to City Hall is accurate. But City finances and the challenge ahead are even more dire than you suggest.

First, it’s hardly something to cheer about when council has agreed to limit tax increases to 3.25 percent over the next three years. Based on recent inflation of less than one percent, it still represents an increase of more than three times the rate of inflation.

The cost to taxpayers of an average City worker is $91,000 including benefits and employer costs, according to your numbers. This analysis excludes the City tax contribution to the Capital Regional District and that rich layer of bureaucracy.

Come spring the provincial taxpayer will be bludgeoned with what will be a mean provincial budget ushering in years of austerity. This in turn will put more pressure on junior levels of government such as the City of Victoria. Read: There will be less money available for such things as capital projects.

The context of a 3.25 percent tax increase over the next three years is important: The taxpayer already has major increases to water and sewer utilities over the next several years. The new bridge project and waste water treatment alone will be adding a substantial amount to everyone’s tax bill. In addition, taxes will in fact increase more than 3.25 percent because the City has already committed to moving more of the tax base to residential versus business properties.

There are a number of smaller measures that could help on the revenue side of the ledger: When there are thousands of dogs in the City, why do only a fraction of owners actually pay for a licence? How much does the senior home tax deferral program cost taxpayers and can we afford it anymore? The City is viewed as anti-business compared to other regional municipalities, so what are we going to do about that?

It’s my view that only through some regional amalgamation and staff cuts will the City be able to balance its books and come up with the huge revenue demand. The alternative is to tax us into oblivion.

Stan Bartlett

 

Getting a grip on spending at City Hall

Ken Roueche et al expose some of Victoria council’s financial extravagance and propose some useful reforms. They attribute much of the problem to weak oversight and poor information. However, it is clear that the mismanagement of our taxes rests largely on the shoulders of council itself.

Consider council’s open welcome to the Occupy crowd, whose scruffy camp cost over $100,000 to police and dismantle. More recently, they spent an undisclosed amount of money in Beacon Hill Park installing road barriers which impede access to the physically challenged and generally provide a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

These feckless decisions pale compared to council’s stubborn insistence on supporting the sewage treatment plant despite abundant scientific evidence indicating that it is, at best, useless. This unnecessary “feel good” project will burden Victoria taxpayers for decades and will necessarily squeeze out many worthwhile initiatives, including improved public transit.

In fairness, Victoria residents must shoulder part of the blame. We elected a group more interested in political correctness than fiscal prudence and common sense. Regrettably, we got the government we deserve.

Jim O’Hare

 

Stumbles on the Path Forward

Kudos to Focus and Vic Derman who have exposed for public benefit the tainted process that has followed the development of the disastrous sewage treatment project. It is an absolutely shocking revelation that the votes behind this project haven’t even been properly counted—and why is there only silence from the other CRD directors?

The public is left to wonder what rules the CRD is really following when they record the vote but disregard whether the vote was correctly recorded? Where is the provincial government oversight of this process and what is the recourse for its citizens?

The voting structure of the 24-member CRD board itself is fodder for the amalgamation movement. How can there be any sense that the board has followed through with logical decision-making when Director A can vote to fail a motion at the committee level, followed by Director B (his/her alternate) who can vote to pass a substituted motion at a second meeting without having done their homework, followed by either Directors A or B who happen to attend the final vote at the CRD board meeting?

Not only that, but the entire board, representing 13 municipalities and 3 electoral areas, gets to vote on a project that only affects the 7 core municipalities who will actually be footing the bill. 

It gives me no comfort that Victoria CRD Directors Fortin, Alto, Isitt and Young have the votes to push this project forward and largely have the Johnson Street Bridge to show as proof of their combined wisdom and fiscal acumen. The rest of council who sit as alternates at the CRD also have much to atone for.

If you thought the CREST radio system overruns were expensive ($13m extra) and are worried about the Johnson Street Bridge replacement (already at least $16m over even before construction has begun), just wait until the sewage project cost overruns hit your wallet.

Estimated at $783m, this is clearly a province-sized megaproject and like the overruns of the fast ferries ($253M extra), BC Place roof ($200M extra), Vancouver Convention Centre ($388m extra) and Port Mann Bridge ($1.8B extra), we’ll be lucky to get off with only a paltry 25 percent overrun of $200M, which the provincial and federal governments have both stated up front they will not be paying.

Richard Atwell

 

The battle of the QCs

Once again, we are indebted to David Broadland and Focus for providing voters with the facts concerning the backroom machinations of City staff and MMM Group, not without considerable effort and expense through Freedom of Information requests.

It is so evident that the construction of a new Blue Bridge is unnecessary, a waste of tax money and bad planning, that I must repeat the quote from William Pearce QC: “The party’s over, guys—you can’t just build new things because they’re nice to have. The taxpayers are going to be furious when they find out about these facts. The City has a duty to reconsider this whole thing right now.” And those councillors who voted for the bridge replacement have their names listed in black and white for all voters to see just who is representing their best interests. Kudos to those whose names are absent, they have done their homework. It may be a few years before the next municipal election, but believe me, this will not go unnoticed.

And now we have a sewage challenge before us. We will be watching very closely, and of course reading our Focus, to see who will represent our interests on this one.

Lynn Taylor

 

“Turning the City around before it sinks” by Focus editor Campbell, and “Stumbles on The Path Forward” and “The battle of the QC’s” by Focus publisher Broadland are the kind of investigative reports that are rare in Victoria, unique to the magazine, and very much in the public interest of accountability, common sense and fiscal prudence.

The latter article focuses on the ongoing scandal of the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project, which should perhaps more properly be called “Victoria’s Canadian job replacement bridge project,” as millions of dollars of design work on it was done in England, and the bascule’s steel span is expected to be fabricated in communist China, at the expense of Canadian taxpayers and steel workers.

Mr Broadland’s article was accompanied by a photograph of one of the two lawyers referred to in the title, William Pearce, QC, who alleges a very serious conflict of interest between MMM Group and the City of Victoria.

I believe that Mr Broadland’s investigations have kept this maddening construction corruption scandal alive in the minds of attentive Victoria taxpayer-voters.

The combination of Mr Broadland’s encyclopaedic understanding of the history of the JSB tragedy and Mr Pearce’s seasoned legal understanding of how MMM Group apparently conspired with the City of Victoria to mislead Victoria voters in the referendum makes for powerful reading.

My sincere concern is that all of this good work done in the public interest by David Broadland, Leslie Campbell and other Focus writers might be wasted if Mr Pearce doesn’t follow through with a public interest lawsuit to challenge the validity of the bogus referendum.

May I take this opportunity to challenge Mr Pearce to find the courage of his convictions to launch such a lawsuit in the public interest, as the very obviously questionable legality of that stolen referendum would certainly render the new contract signed between the City of Victoria and PCL Constructors Westcoast null and void should a fair-minded, objective judge examine the historical evidence.

To show our gratitude, Victoria taxpayers who value heritage, honesty, hard work and fiscal restraint will surely support such a lawsuit with donations to cover any legal costs.

Once Mr Pearce is victorious in court, Victorians can get back to work immediately, repairing and maintaining our very own Joseph Strauss heritage bridge for a lot less money, and all that work will be done here, not in England or China.

Gregory Hartnell, President, Concerned Citizens’ Coalition 

 

The Unist’ot’en camp 

Simon Nattrass’ January column subtitled “A First Nations group denies access to its sovereign territory” was first-rate and links directly to a province-wide issue that merits page-one headlines: The ownership of BC land.

On December 2 the Times Colonist revealed that property in BC may be purchased only on the express condition that the buyer submit to an archaic colonial absurdity worthy of ancient and extinct Sumer. “The Crown” owns title to what’s in the soil; the owner—you—do not.

Thanks to heroic Campbell-era efforts, what you may own is from the surface up. What the province controls—without the obligation of contributing anything whatsoever to the initial cost or maintenance of your property—is everything below the surface.

Hence the TC’s oblique story about seniors on Pender Island threatened with loss of their property’s subsurface rights to “free miners.” Free miners being people or corporations who, with the purchase of a provincial government license, may “claim” profits for what they also have never owned or paid a cent to maintain.

Simon Nattrass’ Focus piece raises what really should be an election issue. Do the laws already put forward by Campbell & Co trump First Nations’ sovereignty as well as homeowner rights? If so, why would the NDP continue to tolerate them? If these laws are unchallenged and unchanged then all this hopeful talk about the First Nations being able to stop Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, and in general, the environmental destruction of the province for resource company profits, is just talk.

I hoped that by contacting Adrian Dix by email, and later my MLA, Maurine Karagianis, there would be a prompt and positive response to halting this outrage. Both the political benefit to leading such a charge, and its necessity, is obvious. Surely the NDP would take up the cause?

Bad guess. It appears that the NDP is not even slightly interested in standing up to bad laws…Without public and media pressure to push Dix and the NDP to commit to scrapping these laws, it is clear that the incoming government will do nothing whatsoever to resolve this issue. Mr Dix and his colleagues need to be asked—for the record—why this issue is too burdensome for them. And why any NDP candidate merits public trust while refusing to support the public interest.

Avery Moore

 

Kinder Morgan leaves through back door

Like Pete Rockwell, I too attended the Kinder Morgan public information session at Cedar Hill Recreation Centre. I wanted to hear details about the proposed pipeline expansion project from KM staff themselves. My information needs were being met in a courteous, open and helpful manner until the well-organized crowds of protesters arrived to shut down the meeting. I did not come to this session to hear First Nations drumming or to jostle with bullying crowds of protesters. I overheard one protester say, “Our instructions were to go in, take down their signs and put ours up and sit on the floor.”

Kinder Morgan staff did not leave through the back door; they (and I) were forced out of the room by the increasing numbers of disruptive, intimidating, and disrespectful protesters who began to remove information charts and take over the room. Kinder Morgan staff deserve praise for defusing a difficult situation rapidly getting out of control. I admired their restraint and diplomacy.

It’s not about supporting or opposing a particular pipeline project. It’s about preserving civic space for the respectful, open and free exchange of information so essential to the thriving of our democracy. Intimidation and harassment undermine this system, and protesters will lose if they deploy some of the goon-squad tactics they would have us believe its adversaries use. Something important was lost at Cedar Hill.

In the end, the protesters got what they both wanted and deserved: left alone in a room speechifying to one another. 

Brian Mason

 

So it’s illegal surveillance, so what?

It is a challenge to make sense of VicPD Chief Jamie Graham’s obsession with compiling a license plate hit list, and to understand his disconnect with BC’s privacy commissioner’s recommendations. From there, the mind wanders into uncharted terrain, but given the laws in this province, Graham’s actions pose a significant problem because what he is committing is an “offence.” His response to the commissioner provides a window into his mind. What it shows is a lack of respect for our laws and a lack of personal practical judgement.

William Perry

 

Retirees on the rampage

By way of providing accountability for public concern in policing, the federal government has established the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP. As an independent agency reporting to Parliament, its mandate is to ensure that public complaints made about the RCMP are examined fairly and impartially. Its findings are aimed at correcting and preventing recurring problems with the force.

Compare this with BC’s Forest Practices Board, whose mandate is to investigate and issue public reports on how well industry and government are meeting the intent of BC’s existing forest practices legislation.

Isn’t this really the source of the problem at hand with forestry in this province? Where the public needs an agency that has the authority to pursue many of the concerns expressed in Briony Penn’s “Retirees on the rampage,” and challenge legislation that enables such behaviour from government and industry alike, the province has instead given us a Racoon Club.

Brian Nimeroski

 

Pipeliners increase flow of BS

Regarding the letters condemning Briony Penn’s December article, it has been my observation that those who criticize the people who complain about environmental travesties such as pipelines over earthquake-prone regions, and/or tankers through storm-laden channels, seldom live anywhere close to where the immediate impacts of a breach or a wreck would occur. There’s also a good chance their investment portfolios include shares in the companies that build in or and sail through these areas.

Richard Weatherill

 

Heart-warming

Bill Turner, founder of The Land Conservancy, told me the greenest building is the one not built. Victoria Voice (www.VictoriaVoice.ca) agrees. We work for fossil-carbon free and just neighbourhoods. 

Gene Miller’s “Heart-warming” extols “downtown’s hopes and blessings,” a seeming orgy of 3000 new residences. 

Victoria Voice asks, “Where will the people come from?” A hundred other cities are also overdeveloping to attract the same people too. We know what happened when the debt and realty industries did the same thing in the States.

These new residences’ carbon footprint will be exorbitant. None were deemed LEEDS, the environmental standard. Even a new Platinum Leeds building uses massive amounts of fossil fuel to erect it, make the cement, mill the wood, marble and glass, melt the rebar, aluminum and copper, make solar panels and plastic compounds. 

Victoria Voice says leave the people where they are! Give them appealing and liveable neighbourhoods through renovation, rehabilitation, retrofitting and habitat renewal. Upgrade their current structures’ energy efficiency and quality. Provide highly accessible and affordable public transit. Increase public space, workers’ co-ops and affordable housing. Reduce the work week, increase pay. Pay people to grow much more local produce. Make “Mal-Wart” buy and sell local.

Larry Wartel

 

Gene Miller muses about an “innovative, as-yet-unimagined, around town mobility strategy.” Zero emissions shuttle buses, already in use throughout Asia and Europe, could be the key to that strategy in Victoria. 

James Whitney of Pro-Motion Electric Ltd has proposed that small low-speed electric-powered vehicles be used for the cruise-passenger shuttle service. The vehicles’ electric motors receive power boosts from solar panels mounted on the roof. Whitney outlined his plans to residents at a recent meeting of the James Bay Neighbourhood Association (JBNA). 

His proposal is timely as Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) has stated intentions to seek proposals for cruise-passenger shuttle services for the upcoming season. 

Through the JBNA 2009 Residents Survey, residents of James Bay made it known that traffic quantity, noise, and pollution were top priorities, followed by dangerous driving. Tourist buses were also identified as the major source of traffic congestion and noise. Electric vehicle shuttle service, partnered with marine shuttle service, would greatly reduce the transportation impacts of cruise-tourism on the community of James Bay.

In addition to exploring options for shuttle bus operations, GVHA has committed to creating a dock to service water shuttle services directly from Ogden Point to the inner harbour causeway. 

An even bigger challenge will be to change the large highway buses used to transport cruise-passengers to Butchart Gardens and other points beyond the City. However, the technology exists and is used in other cities. The JBNA board of directors has been advocating the use of hybrid buses, quieter and with lower emissions, for longer distance tours.

Innovative transportation strategies have been implemented in many other cities where large diesel-powered buses are not allowed downtown and in residential areas; smaller, quiet, non-polluting electric vehicles replace them. A similar change in transportation fleets would be a major improvement in downtown Victoria. A shopping shuttle, looping from near Chinatown to the tourist information centre, would serve businesses, tourists, and residents alike. 

Marg Gardiner, President, JBNA

 

Reader donates

Thank you Focus for the fine combination of stories about issues facing our community, our country, and the Earth. I am more than happy to support your fine magazine. Please accept the enclosed as a donation; I will continue to pick the magazine up in Cook Street Village. Keep up the good work!

Donna Randall