It was a long week in Vancouver for the Union of British Columbia Municipalities, but Mayor Christina Benty returned to Golden feeling optimistic about her time there.
“The UBCM is working with the province, and I think they’re hearing us. So I think it’s garnering attention,” said Benty. “The province and the feds understand there’s a problem, but my perception is that they don’t necessarily know the best way to deal with it yet.”
The problem she’s referring to, which was consistently the biggest concern raised throughout the week, is the infrastructure deficit.
“We have the most varied infrastructure in our level of government. We have something like 50 per cent of the infrastructure, and we get eight cents of every tax dollar collected, so we’re struggling to meet those needs,” said Benty.
Every mayor in the province is dealing with the same problems said Benty. At the Mayor’s Caucus she was sitting next to Gregor Robertson (Mayor of Vancouver), who has 10,000 people on his staff (Golden has 32), and he is struggling to maintain his city’s infrastructure as well.
“It was a variety of small and large municipalities all having the same challenges,” she said. “We were all talking about the same issues.”
Granting is closely related to the infrastructure deficit. Golden has benefited greatly from provincial and federal grants, especially with regards to the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding. However the lack of flexibility makes it difficult for municipalities to give the proper attention to their biggest priorities.
“It doesn’t matter what your priorities are, you end up getting grants that aren’t necessarily your priority. One of the mayors said he has enough grants for paths and trails, but what he really needs are water and sewer grants. And those are the non-sexy grants. So the challenge is trying to get the grants that are going to meet your community needs,” said Benty.
All of the 14 RMI communities in B.C., including Golden, got together with Pat Bell, Minister of Jobs Tourism and Innovation to discuss not only the progress they have made with the funding, but also their frustrations with the lack of flexibility.
“We would like to have a little more flexibility with the monies. We’d like to use it for some programming. The more infrastructure you build, the more your operational costs go up,” said Benty.
Right now, all RMI funding is to be used for capital projects only. This means that maintenance and programming has to be funded by the Town some other way.
“He was really receptive to our concerns. I really like Pat Bell. He’s great to work and converse with. He really understands how beneficial this program is,” said Benty.
Aside from the many group meetings, the representatives from Golden (the mayor, five councillors and the chief administrative officer), had several private meetings with provincial ministers.
“We got all the appointments we asked for, and I was shocked because that doesn’t always happen,” said Benty.
They had conversations with Shirley Bond regarding the road rescue issues in Golden. Town staff and the Minister’s staff are working together on the issue. They also requested that Bond lobby the federal government to restore funding to the Joint Emergency Preparedness Program.
They also met with the Minister of Transportation to talk about the completion of the Kicking Horse Canyon Project, and with Finance Minister Mike de Jong to further hammer in the message that municipalities need better taxation tools and a more flexible granting system.
The biggest story to hit the media regarding this year’s UBCM was the legalization of marijuana, which was a point of frustration for Benty.
“We attended the resolution sessions, which were quite interesting. Some of my frustration with those sessions is that there’s a number of resolutions that are on the floor that are not local government issues. The most important issue should be the infrastructure deficit, and the hotly debated topic was the legalization of marijuana,” she said.
“Unfortunately that gets a lot of press because it’s exciting to talk about. But that’s not our most important issue.”
Although there is no shortage of issues facing municipalities, Benty was as optimistic as ever that they are heading in the right direction.
“The upper levels of government are going to have to take a proactive approach with these issues. We’re all united, beating the drum, and we’re not going away. I think change is coming,” she said.