White Rock’s newly elected council found itself wrestling with thorny money problems Monday evening, partly as a result of being – as Coun. Helen Fathers described it – “caught between two ideologies.”
In separate reports from city staff, council received requests to approve an additional $741,980 for the Memorial Park upgrade and to authorize 2019 water rates that would represent an 8.5 per cent increase.
Both involved costs incurred by the previous council – including borrowing for the water system – that came in for criticism from members of council’s Democracy Direct majority, although councillors underlined that they weren’t shooting the messengers, who included city manager Dan Bottrill, engineering director Jim Gordon and financial services director Sandra Kurylo.
Ultimately council approved the Memorial Park funds – partly anticipated, negotiated payments to adjust for delays in the project not caused by contractor Fricia Construction – in a split vote, with Coun. Scott Kristjanson opposed, after Mayor Darryl Walker pointed out it would be unfair to residents and businesses to stall the project further.
Kristjanson had argued for investigating the options of stopping work on the project.
“I’m worried about the cost and whether we’re getting what we want,” Kristjanson said. “I went and talked to hundreds of people, and I could name one person who is happy about this, and five online who are happy about what we’re getting for our money. I personally can’t condone spending another dollar until we have a public review.”
Fathers noted the city had already received legal advice that it is obligated to pay the costs.
“This contract is caught between two ideologies and visions of council,” she said.
Walker cautioned council.
“This is our city, and this is a construction site that is halfway done, and we, frankly, cannot afford, nor can our business people on the front, nor can this community afford, to leave it in this predicament,” Walker said before the vote.
“We may not like what has happened here, and it may be a teaching moment for us as we go forward as a council to make sure we more fully understand what happens when contracts are let…”
Councillors later balked at increasing water rates, which Kristjanson said was “bad optics at a time when many people are still unwilling to drink the water.”
Instead, council unanimously passed a motion from Fathers that staff prepare a report outlining the impact of several options for 2019, including a zero per cent increase, a three per cent increase and a five per cent increase.
Both Fathers and Coun. David Chesney, the only returning council members – who voted in favour of an original resolution for the increase – said they had not heard complaints regarding city water, particularly since discoloration problems as a result of treatment and flushing had been addressed.
“We haven’t done a good enough job on education about the water system,” Fathers acknowledged.
At the request of Coun. Anthony Manning, staff will also provide information on a consumption-based rate structure, favoured by Bottrill as “more fair” than the existing fixed-rate structure inherited from Epcor. In discussion, Manning had argued that rate increases should wait until such a structure could be implemented.
Kurylo described the original schedule of rate increases – 8.5 per cent next year, followed by five per cent increases in 2020 and 2021 – as being necessary to begin paying down and debt servicing extensive borrowing by the city for the purchase of the water utility from Epcor, for the city’s share of the new arsenic and manganese treatment plant (which will come on line at the end of March), as well as costs for upgrades, repairs and maintenance for the system.
“The goal is to make the water utility self sufficient,” she said, adding that the borrowed money – some $24 million in all –would still have to be repaid, no matter what schedule adjustments or deferments to capital improvements are considered.
She said that the 8.5 per cent increase would have worked out to an additional $4 per month for an average single-family home, and $1 for an average condominium.
“I completely understand the rationale (for the increase) but I’d like to see a report rather than an almost 10 per cent increase,” Coun. Christopher Trevelyan said.
On the Memorial Park issue – raised in a broader capital project update – council heard from Gordon, in response to questioning from Coun. Erika Johanson and Trevelyan, that among work contributing to the project’s current $6.7 million budget was providing full pre-servicing to the pier, including water and sewer lines, Hydro line and communications links, partly in anticipation of development of a restaurant at the pier head.
In response to Chesney’s question on whether the project would be as green as the last council had been assured, Gordon said much of the remaining work at the east end, away from the concreted water park area, would include grass.
“It will be a lot greener than it is now,” Gordon said.
Gordon said that that the West Beach parkade, Johnston Road revitalization, the water treatment plant and the Generations Playground are projected to come in under budget, while Memorial Park is projected to be on budget. All of the projects are scheduled to be complete by early spring of 2019.